Even after years of giving sailing lessons to grown-ups, I wasn’t fully prepared to introduce my children to the joys of getting underway.  Sailing instruction for kids is different.  First of all, the motivations aren’t the same.  The adult learner looks for technical acumen, or wishes to overcome fears, or seeks an escape.  Your child, on the other hand, isn’t even thinking of a sailing lesson.  He just thinks getting on a boat and going places is cool.  But the details?  He’s not thinking “how to.”  Sailing just sounds like a blast.  And this is a great place to start.

1) Plan, Plan, Plan

So you’ve got an enthusiastic pupil, who doesn’t even know he’s just enrolled in your private sailing academy.  Now what?  Well, on the water isn’t this time or place to ask this question.  Figure out well in advance how your voyage will go.  Plan your route, any anchorages you will visit, havens in case of sudden bad weather.  And the sail training you will do. Have a list of the sailing skills you will impart to your little able bodied seaman, building from the basics (getting on and off the boat safely, tying important knots, bending on sails, etc.) to advanced skills, like reading a chart or docking the vessel.

Remember, too, to plan the time carefully.  Small crewmembers get tired more quickly, so keep the first few excursions short, a few hours at most.  And don’t forget to reconcile your sailing time with the other demands of the home front.  If your spouse won’t be joining you, make sure your absence is agreeable to all, especially if younger children are staying behind, too.

Credit: John Hussey

2) Know your Stuff

This should go without saying, but I have seen more than my fair share of “Captain Dads” (ladies, you somehow are immune to this unique brand of asshattery).  You know the type: nice boat and cool hat equals stature and skill.  Not quite.  If you’re not used to operating a sailboat, then admit your problem and seek help.  Before you take your loved ones out on the briny seas.

3) No Captain Bligh

Closely related to #2.  Often, a lack of knowledge and/or skill leads to panic-stricken situations, which lead to yelling.  Lots of it.  Not a great recruiting technique, skipper.  In some instances, the power of commanding a vessel brings out the flogging captain in competent mariners, too.  If this is you, then I would suggest dealing with that anger before attempting to share the “joys” of sailing with your kids (no, I’m not a therapist, but my wife is, and she approves of this advice).  A boat NEEDS a captain; committees do not work at sea.  But a captain doesn’t strike fear in the crew.  A captain inspires with his or her strength.

4) Be Safe

Obviously.  Look to your boat, your crew and your surroundings.

The Boat:  Is it seaworthy?  Watertight? Have dewatering equipment (bailer, bilge pump, etc.)?  Does it move (engine, sails and rigging, steering gear in working order?)  Can you keep it from moving (anchor and tackle, mooring lines, fenders)?  Are your lights working?  Can you communicate with the outside (VHF, cell phone)?  Can you navigate (charts, compass, GPS)?

The Crew: Do they know how to board a boat?  Can they move about, with one hand for themselves and one for the boat?  Can they swim?  Are there adequate life vests?  A floatation device standing by to throw to a man over the side?  Can the crew perform a man overboard recovery maneuver?  Are they prone to seasickness (and do you have the meds)?  Sunscreen?  Adequate water?

The Surroundings: Know where you are?  The nearest navigational hazards (rocks, buoys, traffic lanes, other boats)?  Is the crew dressed for the weather?  Is there a storm approaching?  Can your boat handle the seas?  Where is the nearest safe harbor and anchorage? 

5) Bring a Lunch

Sailing almost always takes long enough to get hungry, and you burn lots of calories just sitting on a tossing boat, let alone actually managing the craft.  Bring snacks, too, and plenty to drink for little, high-speed metabolisms.  And, just to be safe, bring more than you need, especially water.  Weather, mechanics or even a cool opportunity may extend your cruise.

6) Hand Them a Rope

Which sounds better to you:

“Hey, wanna go sailing?”


“Hey, wanna sit around watching me have fun for a couple of hours?”

Right.  False advertizing only works once.  So hand ‘em a rope, something to pull on, something to help the boat go.  I always let my kids haul up the mast (we have to step it each time we launch), hank on the sails, raise them, and more.  They help cast off when we launch, help tie us up at the dock, and watch the boat as I pull the trailer out of the water and park it for the day.  It’s all part of the experience, and a lot more fun than just bearing witness.

At the Helm!
Credit: John Hussey

7) Hand Them the Tiller

Why stop with a few ropes?  Holding the tiller (or helm) gives a kid a great sense of control, a real thrill.  This is a large part of what makes sailing so great: the chance to make autonomous choices, and to learn the responsibilities that come which such freedom.  A few seconds after taking the tiller, each of my four sailing kids has gotten that confused-and-then-frustrated look of a new helmsman.  The boat drifts.  Other craft get in the way.  The wind gets fluky.  Yup, you have to pay attention when you have the con.  A great lesson.

Once they master the basics, move on to letting them moor and unmoor, or navigate a tight channel, even plan an overnight journey (if your boat is up to this).  Give them the tools, then watch them grow as they wield them.

8) Go Somewhere Cool

Having a destination gives a kid something to look forward to.  It can be as simple as a good place to jump in the water for a few minutes, or a local harbor where you can explore ashore.  For our day trips I always try to pick a good “lunch hook” spot, somewhere with a sheltered anchorage and a great view where we can enjoy our meal and plan our afternoon adventures.

A stop is also an excellent teaching tool.  It requires planning (looking at the chart, gauging the wind, etc.), as well as effort to execute the plan.  All the aspects of sailing are required to reach the goal.  Planning + skills + effort = reward.  Another great lesson.

9) Money is Not Really an Object

Ok, if your idea of sailing is a $450,000 catamaran, then money may be an object; if not, God bless you, have a blast.  For the rest of us, though, the prospect of buying and maintaining a sailboat is viewed through money-colored binoculars.  It needn’t be.  Take a look on Craigslist. I guarantee you’ll find something seaworthy for under $500.  We recently purchased a 23’ sloop with a trailer (which means no docking fees), two outboard motors and a full suit of sails for $2000.  There’s something out there for almost every budget.

10) It’s the Journey

Sailing is not an efficient form of transportation, at least not as far as time is concerned.  It’s not supposed to be.  It’s recreation.  Unlike the family-hostage-situation of long-distance drives (I-95 to Florida anyone?), sailing with kids invites you to focus on the moment.  As important as forehandedness is to any safe sailing voyage, you also have to enjoy the present, and so do the kids.  One of the primary goals of sailing with kids is making them want more.  Fortunately for all hands, the pleasures of sailing make it an easy sell.

Credit: John Hussey

Some of my most memorable experiences have happened while sailing, and I’m determined to give my kids the same opportunities.  Keep these tips in mind, and you, too, will be well on your way to becoming a sailing family.  Fair winds!