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Cruising with kids

by Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen 18 Apr 2019 03:05 UTC

Crossing the South Pacific on a small sailboat was never my dream, but I have done it and enjoyed it. My idea was to sail the protected waters of British Columbia's Gulf Islands, like I did as a teenager with my parents, but my husband quickly got bigger dreams and here we are in New Zealand!

Our first big cruising adventure, when our four kids were between the ages of 8 and 15, was sailing from Canada to Mexico over a period of 8 months. Now, as young adults, our children tell us that trip was the best thing we did as a family. It opened their eyes to the world on so many levels: other cultures and languages, natural science, mechanics, and biodiversity, to name just a few. Some of the lessons were closer to home, such as the value of humour, communication, respect, and resilience. We became a much stronger family because of our shared sailing experiences and also much stronger as individuals.

Now, I am cruising again with my husband and we get brief, wonderful visits from our grown kids. I am still intrigued by international families cruising with kids of all ages, and my aim is to provide an overview of the creative ways they tackle issues like housing, career/finance and education. I will touch very briefly on safety and hardly at all on vessels or equipment, as there is ample information on these absolutely essential topics.

While cruising the islands of the South Pacific this past year, through conversations, interviews and emails, I have gathered accounts from 18 cruising families, including my own, in order to pool their experience and perspective for families who might be planning a bluewater cruise of their own. Those I spoke with were from the US (7), Canada (2), UK (2), France(2), Austria (1), Italy(1), New Zealand/Germany (1),and Switzerland (1)

Here are the key questions and the most common answers listed in brief.

  • What motivated you to go sailing with your children? To expand their worldview, learn another language, share travel experiences, and have time together.
  • As cruising parents, what was your own sailing background? From circumnavigators to those with no sailing experience.
  • What did you do about your home on land? Some sold, rented, left it empty, or hired a house-sitter.
  • How did you arrange your career (and finances) to allow cruising time? Some took leaves of absence from work (2), others quit (8), one parent commutes by air for work and others take on short term contracts (5), some work online from the boat (2), some work in the destination country (2), and some work six months/cruise six months (2).
  • What do you do about education? Some children are not being taught, some are home schooled, use distance schooling or online schools, and some are enrolled in international schools or local schools.
  • What do you do to promote social interaction among children? Some rely on other cruisers, some invite friends from home onboard, some rely on local school friends, social media, VHF cruiser nets and kidnets, and some promote visits home.
  • What has been your sailing route so far? The west coast of North America to New Zealand (8), Europe via the Caribbean to New Zealand (7), west coast of North America to the Caribbean (1) and New Zealand/South Pacific return (1).
  • What do you do about safety on board? Life jackets, harnesses, and deck/cockpit rules were all mentioned.
  • Do the children have roles on board? Teens tend to be involved in routing, managing the dinghy, standing watches, boat maintenance, preparing meals, and doing laundry and cleaning. Preteens also help in many of these areas.
  • What are some of the highlights? Swimming with whales, sea lions, sharks, mantas and whale sharks, as well as snorkeling coral reefs, were all mentioned. Meeting other cruiser families, having shared family experiences, and seeing kids gain new skills, abilities and independence were mentioned by the parents.
  • What challenges have you dealt with? The majority said missing friends and family was the biggest challenge.
About the Families

Here are some details of the families, with teens first and then young families. The Austrian family I met in New Zealand had simply sold their home and set out on their modest 38 foot sailboat with their 16 year old son. They sailed from the Med to the Caribbean and then explored the islands of the South Pacific. Once in New Zealand, the son was accepted to the local public high school and planned to stay on a student visa until graduation. His parents planned to work "at something". New Zealand currently has a website, https// that allows you to apply online for a working holiday visa if you are under 35. If you are older but have needed skills or a job offer, you may also be able to apply for a work visa. It depends on your skills and circumstances and takes some time to arrange beforehand.

One American family I met in Mexico called a catamaran "home" as they traveled the world with three teen aged sons who were attending the local school. They had also attended an American International School in China. One parent stayed on board with them while the other did short term work contracts at home to fund the adventure. American cruising buddies of ours in '06 put their two daughters, ages 10 and 12, in a language school in Mexico for three months to learn Spanish. These parents had taken eight months off of work and rented out their home for cash flow.

Satin and Dave Brennan, both experienced sailors from Seattle, Washington, took their two teen daughters cruising down the west coast of North and Central America to the Galapagos and through the islands of the South Pacific to New Zealand in their 54 foot Hylas, Anila, which they bought in 2005. They knew they would come home after two years and return to their careers. They considered renting out their house, but decided instead to have some renovations done in their absence. Leaving friends was hard for the girls, but it helped knowing that it was for a short time.

Satin researched what would meet the local school curriculum requirements and the girls' interests. In addition, she was able to teach them French while Dave, a computer programmer, taught them computer skills. Having a flute and guitar on board allowed Kyra, 12, and Camille, 14, to develop and enjoy their musical talents. Satin posts a whiteboard with the daily "must do" list: "hygiene, chores, schoolwork, relax." Everyone helps out with boat chores from laundry and cooking to changing filters and standing watch on passages. After exploring New Zealand and visiting friends in Australia, this cruising family is now back home and settling into life on terra firma.

The Spott family are from " a two stoplight town" near Seattle. They decided to expand their 13 year old daughter, India's worldview and see the world together from a catamaran. Having no sailing experience, "we agreed that I would be the one to learn to sail," writes Caroline, a network consultant for schools and libraries. Ryan Spott works full time from the boat and travels frequently. On Waponi Woo Monday to Friday, he is within 24 hours of an airport and connected to his office by phone and email via a KVH satellite communication system, Wifi extender and cellular booster. He takes a leave if he is too far from an airport or on passage. The boat is set up for Caroline and India to handle without him.

After over two and a half years cruising the west coast of North and Central America and parts of the Caribbean, the Spotts are currently in the Bahamas, where India continues her schooling online through Brigham Young University Independent High School Study Program. "Academically driven and studious, getting her to do schoolwork is never a problem". This program includes proctored exams and leads to a high school graduation transcript.

Caroline listed homesickness, cabin fever, and loneliness as challenges and she shared several solutions. Usually India can find company among the growing number of teens cruising with their families, but after four months without teen company in LaPaz, Mexico, the Spotts invited India's best friend from home to join them for a year. Now they sometimes go to anchorages if there is teen company there. India keeps in touch with friends through social media, such as the Facebook group Kids4sail, Skype, Google hangouts, and Discord. The Spotts' house is rented out, but they go back to their hometown for two months every year to reconnect with friends and family, do medical and dental checkups, and work on projects they cannot manage from the boat.

"Ryan and I decided to go cruising. Our daughter didn't. It was a struggle for her to leave the friends she had since pre-school and the house she had lived in all her life. With this in mind we let her choose her school and be involved in planning our route. The dinghy is her car; it gives her the freedom to go to shore or visit friends in the anchorages. Teenagers need to flex their wings and test their limits. That does not change because you are on a boat." When asked about highlights, Caroline writes, "Cruisers are from all walks of life; among their ranks are some of the most interesting, kind and generous people we have ever encountered. If anyone needs assistance, someone is there to help. This is really evident in the VHF nets in cruiser anchorages." She also notes the joy of seeing India change from a disgruntled, 13 year old into a capable 16 year old who changes the oil in the generator and motors, stands watch, and navigates Waponi Woo through a crowded anchorage. Ryan jokes that although she has no license, India can, "drive a boat the size of a house in a foreign country!" The current plan includes cruising north as far as Nova Scotia.

I met Molly McGreal-Stence and her family on a whale swim adventure in Tonga. She cruises aboard Nimbus with her husband and three teenagers. They started with a power boat and then switched to a 33 ft Tartan for local racing and family holidays on Lake Michigan. In 2013, they purchased their 57 ft Trintella in Croatia and spent two and a half months cruising Italy, Corsica, and Monaco before leaving the boat in France. The following winter they crossed to the Caribbean and North Carolina. In 2017, Matt, the main breadwinner, was able to quit his high stress job and the family set off for the Caribbean and the South Pacific. They have a house sitter for their home in Des Moines, Iowa, and income from commercial real estate.

The Nimbus crew follows a school program, with guidance from their assigned distance teacher. On board, they help with various tasks and projects, from laundry and meals to standing watch, but they do not handle sails. Safety awareness is a constant thing and the subject of frequent discussions and practice. Molly is sure that travelling gives their kids a much broader education than anything they could experience at home and adds "The kids were and are at the mercy of their adventurous parents!" Molly's recent family highlights include swimming with whales in Tonga and also being becalmed and taking a swim 2 miles above the ocean floor!

About Our Family

When we went sailing in our 31 foot Beneteau with our four kids in 2006/7, we pared down our belongings and stored our household essentials in a locked spare room of our rented home (on our return, we wondered why we had kept so much stuff!). I took a leave of absence from my teaching job and my husband, a plumber, simply gave notice. Our kids all did distance schooling and kept pace (more or less) with the prescribed curriculum. Coming back to the BC public schools was easy for the girls, who were still in elementary school. For the boys, aged 14 and 16, coming back mid year to grades 8 and 10 took a bit longer to get the courses they needed, but it all worked out in the end. Henk returned to work within two weeks and I got a better job than I had before the trip.

We all treasure the adventures we had, and the friends we made, while cruising together, especially swimming with sea lions and hanging out with the crew from Pythagorus!

What about safety for young sailors?

Safety rules around swimming, life jackets, harnesses, staying in the cockpit, staying below in rough weather or at night, and man overboard drills are good places to start your family safety routines. Choosing the conditions in which you leave the anchorage is another consideration."Don't put deadlines and schedules before safety" writes Debra Ann Cantrell, in her book Changing Course (McGraw Hill 2001, 2004). Reefing early and reefing at night are common practices on some boats on passages, as sleep is really important. Many families also bring a third, experienced adult on board for passages. With your kids aboard, you are going to be even more careful about monitoring weather for a safe sailing window and navigating safely. Unlike adult crew, children are there because you brought them. That said, GPS, AIS, modern weather forecasting, weather routers, and satellite phones are all wonderful tools that can make cruising so much easier and safer.

What inspires people to go cruising with small children?

Carli Lang, a Canadian who sails on a 50 foot aluminum cutter, Yonder, with her partner Rob and 5 year old son, Adrian, put it this way, "Rob has such positive memories from his 2 year cruising experience as a 9 and 10 year old. We wanted to give Adrian the same opportunity. We believe there is such value in expanding his cultural and ecological worldview, in experiencing such strong connections to family, community, weather, the ocean, and in living (and enjoying!) a simple existence." Safety rules around life jackets and adult supervision on deck are non negotiable aboard Yonder.

"Before leaving, Adrian attended kindergarten three days a week, and the rest of the week he was home on the farm with us. Outside of school, most activities presented learning opportunities and Rob and I made a point of discussing, teaching, and listening to Adrian's observations when he was receptive. Adrian was involved in most aspects of the farm and it is incredible how much botanical, mechanical and economic awareness he has picked up as a result." The boat provided a new setting for a similar style of learning. "For science, history, and geography we took advantage of the many opportunities that presented themselves, and expanded on that with discussions and research. For reading and math, I made an effort to have regular lessons, about an hour a day, where we practiced basic skills using workbooks, games, books and a whiteboard. The trick was to keep it varied and interesting." Carli notes that keeping a regular routine was a challenge.

The trip through the Pacific from LA to New Zealand was Carli's and Adrian's first bluewater sailing experience, but Carli adds she "did have lots of experience backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, climbing, skiing, working/living in other countries, as well as a solid experienced partner who was able to carry the weight until I was up to speed." Carli works for an NGO on a contract basis, and is currently back home in Ontario where Adrian joined the Grade One class at the neigbourhood school. "We live in a yurt on a farm, so we don't have much stuff". Meanwhile, Rob is working on the boat in New Zealand, getting it ready for another season. Cruising plans are still "up in the air but the most likely plan is New Zealand, Vanuatu, Indonesia, then South Africa".

"I wanted to show them the coral reefs. A close friend died suddenly and we were suddenly aware that time is precious. We should not put off our dreams for too long. The time for living is now." These were some of the motivations for Annika Kurze, who sails a steel-hulled, cutter-rigged LunaC. Annika and her partner Ron are from Germany and now call New Zealand home. They own and operate the charming German Bakery in Waihi, New Zealand. (I went in for a latte and an apple strudel and came out with a date for an interview!). As they sold their home three years ago to buy their 46 ft, 1998 New Yorker, they are glad to have reasonable rental accommodation in Waikino, not far from the bakery. "We are very frugal," says Annika. "We don't need the latest car, phone or computer. Its a choice between experience and money." They close their business and go cruising for several months at a time with their children, Kian, aged 4, Mona 6, and Lina 7. So far, they have cruised New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, and New Zealand to Fiji and back. They are gearing up to cruise to Vanuatu and back in the 2019 season.

Annika and Ron chose unschooling for their family, whether they are cruising or on land. She explained that this education philosophy, outlined in 1970 by John Holt, advocates teaching in the receptive moment and following the learner's interest. The general idea is that life experience presents better learning opportunities than any textbook or factory model school. Unschooling emphasizes the parent/child bond and allows the learner to guide the course of study. Later the children may need more input, especially from their peer group, but for now, whether they are enthusiastically weeding the family vegetable garden, swinging from the anchor chain, or exploring the beach, this family is enjoying a wealth of learning experiences.

Annika grew up sailing with her father, and as Captain of LunaC, she is very aware of being responsible for her family's safety. Ron's first sailing experience was the sea trial when they were purchasing LunaC. "We don't have rules exactly...its pretty clear when you need a harness or a life jacket and the children accept this. We all do what keeps the boat safe and the boat keeps us safe." She also notes that when it comes to safety, even within one family, some kids may respond well to discussions and explanations, while others need hard and fast rules. As for challenges at sea, Annika, a winemaker, misses working with the soil and growing her own vegetables. The Kurzes also miss their friends, but notes Annika with a smile, "We can often find new boat friends."

Some school age children (and parents) I talked with looked forward to the start of conventional schooling after a period at sea. Emily Davidson from England, circumnavigated before she had a family. Now she is sharing a cruising adventure on Bonaire with her husband, Tom, and sons Will and Sam, aged 8 and 6. The boys have learned a tremendous amount while cruising from home, through the Caribbean and across the Pacific, but they were looking forward to starting school in Opua, New Zealand. Similarly, 7 year old Zeno Nicolas, cruising from England to New Zealand with his parents, Peter and Lisa on Pelizeno, looked forward to going to school. I often saw Zeno doing his daily schoolwork beside his parents in a cafe in Papeete, Tahiti. I was lucky enough to listen to him read aloud one of his stories.

The two families I met from Switzerland and Italy had come halfway around the world already, and were planning to continue back to Europe. With children between 3 and 5 years old on board, formal schooling was not yet an issue. They had rules and routines that worked for them around safety and life jackets. They all seemed to be having the time of their lives, whether dancing at a cruiser gathering, hiking with another family or playing in the water.

One boat we met in Tonga had two girls aged 5 and 7 on board with their father. Their mother works in New Zealand and joins the family when she can. The two girls were often seen bouncing off their boat into the warm water with their dad, or kayaking about the bay together in life jackets, long sleeves and enormous sunhats. They did daily schoolwork and enjoyed visits from a five year old from another boat in the anchorage. One afternoon, their mother kayaked to our boat for a chat. The wind came up a bit and it was the elfin seven year old who rowed the dinghy across the bay, against a stiff breeze, to pick her up. She rowed her mother all the way back to their boat, too, towing the kayak. Is there any opportunity for that kind of independence in a conventional first-world upbringing?

Carli on Yonder shared some "go to"activities for active cruiser kids:

  • A passage "advent calendar" with a small daily surprise/treat gives Adrian something to look forward to and also acts as a motivator for getting schoolwork done.
  • Dissections! Flying fish and squid found on deck in the morning were a great reason to bring out the tweezers, knife and microscope. Mom enjoyed this one just as much as Adrian.
  • Dance parties!
  • Blowup punching bag with water in the bottom for weight, helps an active kiddo blow off some steam.
  • Plasticine for hours of making creations and stories to go with them.
  • Art supplies including paper, paints, markers and scissors. Adrian started drawing cartoons and stories and Carli would write them out.
  • Board games and cards.
  • Activity books: stickers, coloring, mazes, word searches, puzzles.
  • Chapter books to read-aloud.
  • Movies and tablet apps give some respite to tired parents!

Clearly there is no one size fits all when it comes to family life afloat these days. Regardless of the age of your kids, your educational philosophy, financial situation, or housing and career situation, cruising can provide profound and varied experiences, as well as some challenges for the whole family. Technology certainly provides some important safety options as well as ways to connect parents to their careers, and kids to their education. Ultimately, there are as many ways of approaching cruising with kids as there are people doing it. Molly, of Nimbus, sums it up like this, "It is work to get out here and it is work to stay out here, but if you can figure out ways to make it happen, I can't think of a better way to spend your family time."

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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