How We Hooked The Kids

A Survival Guide For Parents

By Danielle Zartman

This mom decided to instill a love of boating in her three little girls, hoping it would make them enthusiastic about the cruising life. So far, it's working!

"I couldn't do it," my cousin Elizabeth said, shaking her head after hearing my plans. I'd been driving south with my three daughters, Antigone, Emily, and Damaris, visiting friends and family along the way, and San Diego was the last stop. We were expecting my husband Ben to arrive in a day or two after having sailed Ganymede, our Cape George 31-foot pilot cutter, from San Francisco around the southern tip of Baja California and north into the Sea of Cortez. To be honest, I didn't know if I could do it either.

Being a good wife and mother was already difficult enough, and to add first mate to my duties seemed a daunting combination. My only hope, I'd realized from the outset of the project, would be to get the children as excited and eager about sailing as I am.

During the past three years that Ben had spent building Ganymede from a bare hull, I'd done my best to include Antigone, our oldest daughter, in little jobs. Her "help" may have slowed progress down at times, but in this way the boat became hers, too. More than a few fiberglass panels and bits of trim have her crayon drawings on their backsides, and she was always eager to help sharpen pencils on her father's hand-grinder. Nearer the completion of the project, her sister Emily began to add a helping hand and the two girls measured bits of wood and turned the heads of lots of screws. They helped me with pins and measuring tape while I sewed upholstery for the berths and settee, and, of course, were especially excited when I cut up some Bambi-pattern sheets to fit their own tiny mattresses. When all that was done, we celebrated by camping out in the boat right in our own backyard. In the chilly darkness after supper, we baked cookies in the boat's oven to have with hot cocoa and marshmallows on the foredeck. It was so much fun that we stayed a second night before packing up and returning to the house.

It was during those two nights, with everybody sleeping in their own cozy berth aboard the boat, that our "boat stories" started to become real. Reading to the children at bedtime is a pleasant end to the day. Even better is when we turn out the lights and tell stories about three little sailor girls, Antigone, Emily, and Damaris, who live on a small white boat named Ganymede. They are on a world cruise and have all sorts of wonderful adventures. And so our girls began to anticipate seafaring with all of its toils, fears, pleasures, and excitement. To supplement my limited imagination was a library of sailing books we'd sought out and collected over the years.

From true tales of adventure such as Kon Tiki and The Brendan Voyage, to science fiction such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, they keep us eager for the watery places of the world, and supply endless stimuli to the imaginations of the kids. Arthur Ransome's books are great favorites with our girls. The children in them, so seamanlike in so many ways, are still believable as real boys and girls. So our own daughters halfway knew many things that could be expected of the sailing life, and had good examples of seamanship and responsibility held before them.

Like Arthur Ransome's characters, we, too, would keep in touch with loved ones ashore. A chart from the post office showing the various acceptable dimensions of envelopes would allow us to make our own out of colorful maps and brochures from places we'd visit. Smaller treasures such as butterfly wings and ticket stubs could be pasted into our journals alongside such thoughts and reflections that aren't for sharing in letters home.

This was all in preparation for moving aboard and cruising in Mexico with the children, but I wondered in odd moments what I would do when life didn't measure up to their expectations. It might have been this thought that kept my cousin Liz snug at home; but it was the very reason I wanted to sail with children — to raise their expectations not only about traveling by boat and seeing new and interesting places, but to put a reality under those expectations. I want them to know that it's OK to dream, and though things never play out quite like our imaginations conceive, those dreams that sent us out were not in vain; without them we might never have dared to go at all.

Photo of Antigone helping dad build a boatAntigone helps dad build a boat!

No Idle Hands Aboard

We've been cruising for a season now and have discovered numerous activities to fritter away time both while underway and at anchor. It's certainly easier at anchor because those activities are often found in play such as building sandcastles and searching for shells, exploring in the dinghy, and walking ashore. When we're really feeling up for a treat, we collect driftwood for a bonfire and perhaps roast marshmallows or potatoes or hot dogs. If the night is cold or the day is rainy, hours pass quickly searching through our reef-creatures guide to learn the names of shells found or fish sighted. When our brains are full of funny-sounding names, we write those letters home and fill our journals with sketches. We're none of us artists, but it encourages the children to peek over at mom's awfully blobby attempt at drawing frogs and flowers, and their efforts in hieroglyphics redouble.

Keeping the children busy while underway has its challenges. For those times when mom and dad must pay attention to the boat, the girls know to duck below and fend for themselves. The moment I find myself with the time to wonder what they're up to, I look about me and think of something I need help with. Children love to be useful. Antigone, who's 5, can steer the boat for a few minutes and is quite pleased with herself when she does. She also "helps" dad at the chain locker as we raise the anchor while Emily, 3, stands by at the halyards to haul up the main sail. It sometimes feels like they get in the way, but less so than when they hop about on one foot asking what they might do next.

Here Fishy Fishy

It was a surprise to me, who'd just as soon be out of sight during the proceedings, how big an interest the girls take in fishing. Ben let them each pick the prettiest lure, and put them on hand reels, and it's almost a contest to see whose lure will catch the first fish. If one is caught, Antigone, though too small to be allowed a filet knife, helps Dad clean the fish, solemnly taking the head and entrails to the side in her little fish-cleaning gloves to throw to the pelicans. Each filet must be handed first to her for careful placement in the tub, and she is the official foil-wrapper of each piece before it goes on the grill.

Photo of the Zartman family on the deck of their boat

And so we go, learning week by week what we can and cannot do; what sorts of things are too hard on the kids, and what they will take with equanimity. It is an all-consuming task trying to properly care for the girls while cruising, with every plan, every passage, every meal, even, with their needs and well-being of primary consideration. But when I see them building castles on the shore and learning to play in the surf by the seaside, when I hear their squeals of joy at a dolphin jumping in the bow wave, or a whale spout in the distance, I know that it's all worthwhile.

Photo of Antigone at the beach

  • Invite one of your child's friends to go along. A child who finds boating dull may enjoy it more when they can share their experience with someone their own age.
  • Involve your kids in maintaining and cleaning the boat.
  • Play in the boat on land as a fort, or camp in it overnight.
  • Fill your conversations with boating: September 19 is "National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day."
  • Selecting what toys to bring for youngsters can be difficult as they're often messy and take up too much space. We've found that a little cooking set provides hours of entertainment and can be taken to the beach or played with water in the cockpit.
  • Read sailing and adventure books suitable for children. (See sidebar for our list of favorites.)


  • Take tons of photos. You never know when a great picture might make you want to repeat the experience.
  • Include the children in handling the boat, looking for buoys, learning how to read the chart.
  • Man-overboard drills were a favorite with my sister, brother, and me. We'd throw in a life jacket and practice retrieving it.
  • Let them prove their strength and agility. Tow a line with a fender, body board, or raft at the end, and let the kids go for a ride – wearing life jackets, of course.
  • Downwind sailing may be a relaxing pleasure for the captain while perhaps a little dull for a younger crew, until you invite them to sit on the boom in the bag of the doused sail.
  • Towing a line is the easiest way to fish, and few things are more exciting than pulling in a tuna or mackerel halfway through a quiet day at sea. Leftover hot dogs make splendid bait for bobbing with hand lines off the transom while at anchor.
  • Bring snorkeling gear, and consider getting your child a wetsuit; the longer they enjoy being in the water and staying warm while doing so, the more they'll love boating.
  • Be sure to have fish-identification books aboard, such as the excellent volumes by Paul Humann. Learning about the fish and wildlife we see enriches the experience of snorkeling and boating.
  • An overnight passage is the perfect time for learning constellations. Small children like to know there are lions and saucepans in the sky, and an older child may be interested in Orion, Pegasus, Andromeda, and the mythology surrounding them.

At Anchor:

  • Try a quick sail to the other shore and enjoy a picnic and exploration on the beach.
  • Circumnavigate the island, land on it, and maybe even camp out.
  • A sailing dinghy or sailboard can be a much-needed challenge that's easily set up and nearly indestructible. How about races, or desperate sea battles?
  • An inflatable kayak allows older kids time for quiet exploring alone and away from the mothership.
  • A journal full of leaves, receipts, postcards, sketches, coin rubbings, and so on, is fun to make and to show to friends when the trip is done.
  • With all the water involved with boating, watercolor painting occupies time nicely and cleans up quickly. Our girls paint all over each other as a prelude to a thorough bath.
  • Modeling clay is fun for smaller children, and when not in use is wonderful for keeping bowls and cups from sliding off the table. Just roll out a long snake, wrap it around the base, and press it onto the table. No slip!
  • "How do you like to go up in a swing?" recites Emily as she swings from a little bosun's chair hanging from the boom. When she's bigger, we'll tie her swing to a halyard and the boat will be her jungle gym.
  • Bring a few small games. Dominoes are fun to spin and a challenge to build with, and are even fun to play for all ages. Cards, too, are good for everyone and provide a variety of different games in one little deck.

Most Importantly:

  • Be sure you seem to be having fun, too, even during stressful moments. Your attitude is contagious to your children. 

Danielle Zartman and her husband Ben took two years off from working to cruise their 27-footer all around the Caribbean, before coming home to California to start their family, and build their present boat.

— Published: August/September 2011

Ganymede's Children's Library

In our August issue, Danielle Zartman, a young mother of three small girls, sets off cruising for a year with her family. She and her husband Ben really wanted their girls to love the boating life before they set out, so they spent the two years before they left really making boating fun for the kids. Part of what they did is read terrific books about boats, and the sea, to the kids. Here are Danielle's top picks, along with great books for teens as well.

Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

McElligot's Pool by Dr. Seuss

Mouse and Mole's Great Race by Diane Redfield Massie

Penelope and the Pirates by James Young

Little Golden Books:

Theodore Mouse Goes to Sea, and Donald Duck's Toy Sailboat

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (12-book series)

By The Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman

The Girl of The Sea Of Cortez by Peter Benchley

Island of The Blue Dolphins and The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell

Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Benito Cereno and Moby Dick (abridged version) by Herman Melville

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne

Mr. Midshipman Easy by Capt. Frederick Marryat

For Older Children:

Kon Tiki, The Ra Expeditions, The Sohar Voyage, Aku-Aku by Thor Heyerdahl

The Brendan Voyage and The Sinbad Voyage by Tim Severin

The Incredible Voyage, West From Home, and Outward Leg by Tristan Jones

Dove by Robin Lee Graham

Tinkerbelle by Robert Manry

Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

The Hornblower (series) and The African Queen by C.S. Forester

The Aubrey and Maturin books by Patrick O'Brien

Enchanted Vagabonds and Quest For The Lost City by Dana and Ginger Lamb

Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi and Bernadette Brennan

The Shadow-line, The Secret Sharer, The End Of The Tether by Joseph Conrad

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe


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