If you have ever avoided taking your children on a boat because the thought makes you anxious, fear no longer. I grew up on boats and I frequently take my own children on boats. With careful preparation and the right tools, boating with children can be a wonderful experience, rich with opportunities to learn and bond.
Prepare your children before they even step onto the dock — the life jacket stays on at all times.
If the boat has a cabin and you plan to stay aboard for longer periods of time, the jacket should be removed only for sleeping or eating a meal "inside." It's best not to get in the habit of removing the jacket every time they go below deck to use the toilet or grab a snack.
For recommendations on choosing the right life jacket for both children and adults, please see this PDF brochure published by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Have a general first aid kid on board and a working ship-to-shore radio for calling the Coast Guard in emergencies. For more information about vessel safety checks and boating safety courses, see the Boating Safety Resource Center and this article about boating safety.
Be prepared for retrieving children from the water should they fall overboard. Some boats have a swim step to help older, heavier children. Practice retrieving something from the water — throw in a life jacket and grab it with a telescoping boat hook.
Be sure there are lifelines or railings. If there are no railings, keep children in the cockpit, though I do not recommend taking children on boats without safety railings.
Just like on an airplanes, plenty of snacks are key to keeping kids happy on boats. Take them to the store and let them pick their favorite foods, including special treats for good behavior. Beware of letting them have too much sugar. The last thing you want in small spaces is hyper kids!
Most boats have water tanks but if not, be sure to bring adequate water with you.
Think cards, games, books, art supplies and tablet devices. Be sure the tablet is pre-loaded with videos and games since cellular service is not guaranteed on the water. Choose games and art supplies with limited pieces for simplicity. This classic doodler by Fisher-Price (Amazon, $19) and this reusable sticker pad (Amazon, $7) by Melissa & Doug are great examples of compact toys that can provide hours of play.
Avoid rough weather. If you cannot avoid rough weather, keep children in the cabin or as low in the boat as possible. Have Dramamine (Amazon, $4.50) or other anti-nausea medicine in your first aid kit just in case.
Be aware that the sun is stronger on the water, so come with hats and sunscreen. Since hats are often lost overboard due to winds, pack extra hats.
You must always know where your children are. A life jacket doesn't stop anyone from falling overboard, and if the engine is on, you might not hear anything.
Also, don't drink alcohol or allow yourself other distractions while minding the children. Sit back, relax, and be present to your family and friends.
Bring books or guides about the water below and around you. Use binoculars to look at birds, distant otters and the shoreline. Study nautical charts or the boat's GPS system for a geography and topography lesson. Go fishing or crabbing or swimming. Breathe in the fresh air and make relaxation the goal. You have nowhere to go and nothing to do but be with your loved ones. The boating life is a good life.
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