Boating With Children

Story And Photos By Brian Mistrot

Keeping little ones safe and having fun aboard may have its challenges, but when it's done right, it sows the seeds for a lifetime love of boating.

Photo of young kids in a boat with their motherShort boat rides are key, if the kids are young.

Some of the most memorable days of my childhood were spent on the water. What began as a periodic outing with my family turned into my favorite thing to do as a teenager, and it molded a passion that's never left me. Today, some 30 years later, my wife, Christie, and I have raised our children on the sea; our oldest, now well into his teens, was first aboard at 5 days old. Our kids possess their parents' enthusiasm for boating and the water, which I attribute to making it fun and keeping it safe. Many of our suggestions below are universal, no matter the age of the child, while others are age-dependent. Here's what we've learned over the years of having small to teenage kids on board.

Life Jackets:

There's no substitute for a good life jacket in a bright color, especially for young children. If your child isn't a good swimmer or is young, we highly recommend a life jacket with three key design elements: head flotation, to hold the head up out of the water; a crotch strap, so the child can't slip back out of the life jacket; and self-righting capability, to keep a child faceup in the water. One of our favorites was by Mustang Lil' Legends. Be sure you test the life jacket in a controlled environment, such as a swimming pool, before trusting it on the boat. In our years of boating and making offshore passages, my children have fallen into the water a total of four times — all of them at the dock.

Early Swimming Lessons:

This should go hand-in-hand with a good life jacket. One of our rules was that our children were allowed to pick out a new and more comfortable life jacket when they could pass our swimming test, which involved advanced swimming and floating on their backs for extended periods. That made swimming both fun and rewarding.

Sunscreen & Bug Repellent:

We carry buckets of sunscreen and apply it liberally and often. We also use the sunscreen stick on their cheeks and the tops of their ears.

First-Aid Kit:

If you boat on the coast, make sure you carry vinegar and a pair of gloves to treat jellyfish stings (but don't use vinegar on Portuguese man-of-war stings). Add a good pair of tweezers and waterproof band-aids to the kit. If you can, get a pair of surgical tweezers, best for pulling splinters. Be sure your safety gear (especially flares) is accessible in an emergency but not to your child.

Safe Zone:

Where possible, create a safe zone aboard for your child that's both comfortable and secure. We used our V-berth, which we padded with pillows. If you put some of your child's favorite toys in the safe zone, he or she will be content for a while.

Now That Everyone's Safe, Let's Have Fun!

There is no shortage of things to do to make boating fun, but teens and toddlers are like different species, so you'll need varied tactics to get, and keep them, interested on board.

Newborns To 7 Years Old

  •  Short boat rides are always fun, but remember: SHORT is the key here.
  •  Toddlers aren't going to completely understand the watery world. But an hour spent at the beach digging in the sand or kicking the tops of wavelets will make their day.
  •  Get a small, portable playpen with a zip-up mosquito net and sun shade.
  •  Collect an assortment of games and toys. Let children pick their favorites to leave on board as special boat toys. This makes your kids look forward to going to the boat — and not want to leave.

Photo of kids playing games on a boatKids will look forward to going back to the boat if they leave favorite toys aboard.

  •  Swim, swim, swim! Anchor out and swim off the stern, or go ashore. Keep children in their life jackets if they can't swim, but as they progress, let them take them off under your watchful supervision. The goal isn't just to have fun: it's to get them to the point where they can swim without assistance.

Photo of swimming with the kids

  •  Go ashore with a fine-mesh handheld net and a large disposable plastic container. Help your child scoop up water and bottom sand and dump it into the container. You'll be amazed at the underwater life.
  •  Let them pick out their favorite youth-sized fishing pole and take them fishing. Perch and snapper love to hang out at the docks, and catfish are easy to catch with old hot dogs or cheese. If you're in an area with ducks or geese, carry bread to feed them.

Photo of a young child fishing

  •  For inspiration, choose coloring books with nautical imagery, even when you're home: ships, pirates, mermaids, buried treasure. Crayons can melt if you leave them on the boat. Keep them in a disposable container.

Photo of fishing with dadShow kids how to return fish to the water without harm.

Children From 8 To 12

  •  By these ages, fishing kids should be able to bait and tie their own hooks and remove their own fish. Show them how to properly return fish to the water without harm. With a little work and effort, there's no reason they can't catch something edible. Our kids do!
  •  Anchor, and fly a kite off the stern.
  •  Invest in bird and nature guides, and a good pair of binoculars.
  •  Especially for boaters in saltwater, be on the lookout for dolphin, whales, orcas, seals, and the other marine life visible from the surface. Extra points if you can identify them and share some facts with your kids.
  •  If you're near mangroves or coves, go exploring! Let the child choose which way to go. Point out birds and wildlife as you pass (and don't forget to watch for mermaids).
  •  Make a pirate's treasure map, then go ashore the night before leaving behind clues your children can follow. Bury some sort of treasure at the end. Stick the map into a glass bottle that "just so happens" to wash up against the boat or the shore.

Photo of kids playing on the beach

  •  Collect seashells, and if the children find a conch shell, make it into a horn.
  •  Never underestimate the power of sandcastles. Bring along a small shovel, containers of different sizes, a spray bottle for water, and a butter knife. Send children on a scavenger hunt to find pieces to decorate the castle.
  •  Snorkeling ranks tops for us among all the things that got the kids excited about boating. Toss a polypropylene line (it floats) behind the boat with a life jacket tied to the end to set a boundary. Such a line is also great in a current because they can hold on to it while gazing down. Our rule is that one adult always keeps eyes on the kids from the boat, or we're in the water together. Purchase anti-fog for goggles — better than spit! Or make a solution by adding a little Johnson's baby shampoo to a spray bottle of freshwater to wash goggles, then rinse.

Photo of kids snorkling off boatOlder boating kids should be excellent swimmers before being allowed into the water without wearing life jackets.

  •  Kayaking is great fun for kids: they get to have their own boats! Before sending them off on their own, make sure each can climb back into the kayak. It takes practice, best done in a controlled environment where the children can't touch bottom, because that's most likely what they'll encounter on their own. A floating waterproof VHF is great; keep it on a designated channel you'll both monitor.

Photo of kids kayaking

  •  Standup paddleboards are lots of fun for kids and adults. As with the kayak, make sure kids can get back on the board before letting them venture too far off.
  •  Body surfing, tubing, kneeboarding, and boogie-boarding are always favorites at this age.

Photo of children riding a tube on the water

  •  Stargazing with good binoculars is fun while lying on the deck at night. Bring a star chart.
  •  Dinghy sailing is a great way to teach kids how to sail, while giving them freedom to get out on their own. Be sure they can right the boat after a capsize and can clamber back in.
  •  Kids love learning knots, and it's educational fun. Make them proficient at square knots, figure eights, bowlines, clove hitches, and the trucker's hitch. You may suddenly find you have help on the water!
  •  Geocaching treasure hunts are great for older children. All you need is a handheld GPS and some time to plant the clues. Or look up to find clues other people have left.
  •  Stack the boat with such board games as Monopoly, Sorry, Chess, Checkers, Stratego, Mexican Train (dominos), Poker, and Uno.
  •  This age is a great time to get them into driving the boat and learning at your side. Explain day markers, channel markers, navigation rules, and basic courtesy. If you're on a sailboat, teach them how to sail. Note: Some states require a Boater's Safety Course for children to legally operate a vessel. Go to to learn more.
  •  Explore the bottom with a clear-bottom bucket. You can often find these "look buckets" at dive shops or stores near the coast. (They're also a great way to see from the dinghy if the anchor has dug itself in.)
  •  Take a beach walk, and leave it cleaner than you found it. Award a prize to the child who brings back the most refuse.


  •  Waterskiing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, and standup paddleboarding are favorites.
  •  If your teenager is keen on PWCs, make sure he or she has passed your state's required boating safety course and meets your state's requirements.
  •  If you let them drive and listen to their own music, you can introduce much longer boat rides now. They're starting to enjoy the trip as much as the destination.
  •  Advanced bass or deep-sea fishing will be a hit for teens who love fishing.
  •  When you anchor out at the beach, pack a portable grill and pop-up tent so older teens can sleep ashore. In the evening, get a beachside bonfire going with s'mores or just plain old roasted marshmallows.
  •  Never underestimate the power of a Frisbee to burn off youthful energy ashore.
  •  A child can learn to dive at 10, although you have to be 15 years old to get your full PADI Open-Water Certification. Before investing, make sure your kids really enjoy snorkeling and are good at it. Many diving-related skills can be learned from snorkeling, such as clearing your mask, ears, and snorkel.
  •  Sailboat racing is challenging, competitive, and addictive for all ages, but especially for teens. If you go this route, make sure you give them more and more complex roles on the boat to keep them involved.
  •  If they're capable, let them explore on their own. A good VHF and a cellphone will make you more comfortable, and them safer. Always make them give you a float plan — a good excuse to text.
  •  Let teenagers plan the weekend trip and navigate and anchor the boat under your eye. What better way for them to practice in a controlled environment — but still feel they have some control.  

Brian and Christie Mistrot have been cruising Florida, Puget Sound, and the Gulf Coast since their children, aged 14 and 10, were born.

— Published: April/May 2015

Rules For Parents

1. Educate yourself and your child on harmful marine life, especially box jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war. If the latter are prevalent or you see box jellyfish, stay out of the water. Kids are attracted to jellyfish on the shore, but these can still sting when dead. Educate kids on lionfish, barracudas, moray eels, water moccasins, sharks, and fire coral.

2. While boats are surprisingly kid friendly, the electrical panel and battery-selector switches are not. Educate your child not to touch any switches. A flipped switch can cause damage to pumps or turn off important electronics. Also, the power behind the panel IS dangerous and accessible to wayward fingers; if your panel doesn't have keyed access, install one. Hide the key.

3. Make sure EVERY outlet is protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).

4. Teach your kids about rip tides and what to do if caught in one.

5. NEVER bend the rules on life jackets. Over time, kids will become so accustomed to wearing them that going without will feel unnatural. Remember, wearing them will make them hotter. Watch out for heat exhaustion. Keep lots of water and snacks on board. For young children especially, we found that freezing Kool-Aid on sticks was a great way to keep them hydrated.

6. For older kids beginning to take the helm, make sure they understand boating basics, especially knowing the navigation rules, and get them in the habit of always wearing the engine cut-off lanyard around one wrist.

7. Teach them to use the VHF and how to call for help.

8. Practice crew-overboard drills.

9. Keep a marine-grade whistle on every child's life jacket. Instruct them that if they fall overboard or there's an emergency, blow on it until help arrives.

10. If you boat at night or in coastal areas, water-activated strobes and personal locator beacons may be a good investment.


Rules For Kids

1. Do not play on the ladder or stand in the companionway.

2. Do not drape your feet over the bow while the boat is underway. It's dangerous and, in some states, illegal.

3. All kids under a certain age (usually 13), depending on the state, and those who can't swim MUST have a life jacket on when they set foot on the dock, come aboard, or leave the cabin.

4. No one goes forward without permission at night or during docking and anchoring. Put your child in the "safe zone" during a storm or when docking or anchoring. Your attention at those times will be focused on the vessel.


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