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.

Photo of Ganymede a Cape George 31-foot pilot cutter

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.

Photo of Antigone and Damaris Zartman Photo of Danielle Zartman with daughter Antigone Be sure you seem to be having fun, too, even during stressful moments. Your attitude is contagious to your children. Photo of Ben Zartman with daughter Antigone

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 boat Antigone 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 Photo of Antigone helping dad at the chain locker 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.

  1 | 2 | Next Page

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


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!