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Teaching young people good boating skills

...while planning for fun aboard

Onboard Aleria, we have a rule (among many others).  Children, if interested, will be taught seamanship.  They will be included in discussions, they will be educated about the rules and expected to observe them, and they will get hands-on experience...including steering the boat. Period. 

We both remember being introduced to sailing as young children by someone who cared and was knowledgeable and treated us with respect.  Now, we want to pass that on.  We don’t have children of our own, so we like to borrow whenever we can, especially the enthusiastic ones. We invite lots of friends to come sailing with us and always encourage them to bring their children. 

What we’ve found is an opportunity to observe wonder in action.  Wonder at discovery, wonder at success, wonder at personal accomplishment.  It is very rewarding for us, and if you go by the beaming ear-to-ear smiles, it’s rewarding enough for the younguns to get them interested in boating.   Along with the skills, goes an appreciation for the joy of boating.

Introduction to Boating 101

The first lesson is a general introduction to the boat for all first timers.  Things like where the safety equipment is kept, how to open and close a hatch, when ports must be closed, how to work the head and the fans, where the snacks are, and what they are allowed to pilfer. 

We go over what and where all the equipment is and gauge how interested they are in learning how to operate it (under supervision, of course).  And we show them all the secret weapons – squirt guns, fishing stuff, musical instruments, pirate garb, games, the radio and CD collection (they tend to like some of the “classics” these days) – all of which we keep onboard for entertainment. That gets them excited again when they get bored. We also have a selection of children’s classic books onboard – Harry Potter, Mark Twain, Wind in the Willows, pirate stories for different ages, etc. – because you never know when you might inspire someone to try a good read.

Anything off limits is described.  Not just that it is off limits but why.  I know when I was a few years younger (okay, a lot of years younger), my favorite word was “why?”.  I drove everyone crazy until the adults just said “because I said so.”   But you see, if I knew why, I’d understand instead of just having to accept.  That’s the scientist in me.  And it made all the difference in the world.  One time, when I was told not to mix two chemicals together in my chemistry set, I just had to try it.  I had to know why.  It blew up and painted my cousins’ room the most amazing shade of magenta splotches.  Because my memory still works on occasion, I always explain why if I know it. 

Although we don’t have a TV onboard, our computer does play DVDs, so we encourage our guests to bring along a few of their favorite movies if they’ll be staying overnight and we do cockpit viewings after sunset.  We find that all of these things help children not just endure the time but anticipate its every potential for adventure.

Oh, I almost forgot.  It is imperative to find out what they eat in advance and stock up on the appropriate things.  I’ve learned that if one asks about food preferences or dislikes, one usually gets “oh I like everything,” especially from the parents.  If you then say, “Then you’ll like the special dinner I have planned with tripe and liver pie, oh and kidneys and eggs for breakfast, right?  Then you’ll usually get a little guffaw and a look of consternation.  When they realize it was a joke, they’ll tell you they hate eggs and turkey, but love carrots and beef and lemonade.  It can make all the difference in the world. 


We spend a lot of time on safety issues.  The number one rule of “one hand for the boat and one for yourself” is at the top of the list.  Second on the list is the life jacket and what the USCG requirements are, along with the special Aleria rules. Essentially, everyone wears a life jacket when the weather is questionable, after dark, and when going forward on hazardous duty.  Children wear life jackets on deck at all times.

We also make a point of wearing our own PFDs if we require the children to wear them while sailing, motoring, or rowing dinghies. We believe that it’s only fair and the right thing to do.  We’ve had several occasions where the point was clearly illustrated when our dignity, and lives, were spared.

We also explain what everyone’s job is if someone were to fall overboard.  That way, chances are that extra special care will be taken when moving about, and panic won’t strike if the need does arise.  The children get the job of pointing to the person in the water unless asked to do something else at the time.  They have the best vision, and it will keep them seriously occupied and out of harm’s way to have a specific job and a place to do it from.

Knots and ropes

One of the most useful lessons that will keep guests occupied and will build a lifetime of useful skills is knot tying.  We teach how to tie three or four basic knots and what each is used for.   After sufficient time for practice, we ask them to take on the duties of sail tying, fender placement, dinghy tender management and some other things.  We also teach how to untie using a marlinspike.  We generally check the work done and give heaping praise for a job well done.

We also teach them how to throw a rope for perfect placement. It has been amazing to see a young girl place a rope exactly in the hands of a dockmaster from 25 feet away with the wind blowing us off the dock and no steerage. She was so proud to have saved us a botched docking maneuver.


Nothing gets a child more excited than being behind the wheel…of a car, a boat, or a dinghy.  We always let a child try their hand at steering, staying close by and instructing through every step. We never leave a child alone at the wheel or tiller.

What we’ve found is that there are the ‘naturals’ and the ‘never cans’ and the ‘in betweens’, but they all love to feel in charge at least for some time.  The ‘naturals’ will take the helm whenever they get a chance.  The ‘never cans’ will get bored quickly.  Those in between may keep trying or may get frustrated.   We like to work through it with them as long as they remain interested. 

But we never ever yell at them. Never. Period. (Unless of course the monster from hell ignores all instructions and gleefully disobeys to prove a point. You can see the horns on those types from miles away. That one usually does not get asked back.) We explain calmly and rationally what went wrong and what they should do next time.


I’ve found the greatest joy in observing a young budding sailor watching the telltales, looking up at the windex, and checking the course on the compass.  We tend to give lessons on two levels – basic sailing in the dinghy as well as big boat sailing on Aleria.

There’s nothing like dinghy sailing to get a feel for the wind and the helm, there’s nothing like big boat sailing to get the feel for getting from one place to another using the wind to get you there when it’s not necessarily cooperating.   By the end of a week, we hope we’ve managed to help them relate the skills from one to the other. 


Get a kid behind the tiller of an inflatable and you’ve given them the most coveted of rewards – a license to drive.  Driving lessons can be a bit of a trying experience, but worth every moment.  Safe practices are number one priorities, and include the right ways to get in and out, how to determine capacity, distribute load, and plan for a dry ride.  Starting and running the engine, checking the fuel line, and keeping an eye on the fuel level are the next step.  Getting back to the mother ship is part of that lesson as well.  For kids that aren’t ready for the tiller, getting them to use the handheld GPS to guide you back to the boat after dusk is a thrill a minute.


Proper radio protocol and how to call in an emergency is part of every lesson plan.  We never start on channel 16.  We start with a call for a radio check on channel 9 or a working channel.  That way they get experience without breaking the rules.  Explaining how important channel 16 is and what its uses are is probably a lesson most adults should get and never got as children judging from the idle chatter in New England waters.

Just as important are hand signals for when it’s hard to hear, like when the wind is blowing away from where you need to communicate to.  Hand signals always seem silly at first, but become routine with a little practice.  Let them do the signaling for you when you’re anchoring and picking up a mooring.  Once they know the signals, they can interpret your verbal commands by standing next to you thereby freeing you up to do what you need to. 


Children love being taught the serious adult stuff, and reading a chart is among those things considered mysteriously adult.  We always set aside some time for basic paper chart lessons, as well as GPS and chartplotter interpretation.  It’s the coolest thing when the child you are sharing your knowledge with picks up a chart the next day and says, “Aunt Daria, is that Execution Light right there?”  Yessiree, you’ve made a difference in this child’s navigation skills that will last her a lifetime. 

Chances are also pretty good that they’ll be better then you at figuring out how the chartplotter works and finding the pages with the tides information at the snap of a button.  They’ll be asking where the next waypoint is, making sure there is no obstruction between here and there on the paper chart, and showing off their newly acquire skills at every turn.  They’ll also be double checking your calculations before you know it.  Always a useful thing.

We also encourage them to write their observations in the logbook if they are responsible for checking the position.  It teaches excellent tracking behavior for that time when the electronics will fail. We do this with the older kids, but we explain what needs to be done with all. In fact, we encourage all ages to keep their own logbook of where they went, what they saw, what they did, and how they felt about it.  Those four questions yield a lot of interesting observations and insights.


Speaking of observation, we’ve noticed that children see and hear better than we do these days (I can’t imagine why.)  So we assign watch duties.  It’s up to them to watch for lobster pots, watch the fishing gear for signs of fish, watch for navaids, and keep a sharp 360 degree lookout for approaching boats in fog.  They invariably pick up foghorns and lights long before we do and it keeps them occupied for hours.

Sometimes we make a game of it.  Counting the number of lighthouses or lit navaids we pass of different colors and patterns.  Counting the number of boats that pass us.  Counting the number of stars on a beautiful night.  Young people make especially great companions during night passages.  (I do not mean young children - but teens.) We’d never leave them alone on deck but they certainly open our eyes to the wonder of new sights, smells, and sounds that their never-ending curiosity uncovers. They are going to stay up anyway, might as well keep you company.


A great way to keep a child occupied is to get them fishing.  There’s trolling while underway (a sailboat does the perfect speed), there’s spin casting at anchor, there’s the dinghy trip to the secret fishing spots, and then there is surf casting or fly fishing from the shore.  Each of these can be an adventure of its own, especially if a fish for dinner is the prize that creates the next generation of hunters and gatherers. 

Speaking of gathering, don’t forget digging for clams and oysters, or crabbing with smelly chicken parts on a string.  You may need a permit but it surely is worth it.

Part of any lesson for fishing is also the cleaning and cooking of the catch, or gentle release once you’ve caught enough.   Instilling good habits and skills is all part of the learning experience.

Having fun

If it’s not fun, it won’t sink in.  If it doesn’t sink it, it won’t be remembered.  So have fun, don’t yell, and share what you can.  And don’t be afraid to get a lesson or two in return.  In fact, ask for it.  There’s a lot they teach in school these days that wasn’t even known back in the good old days.  Perhaps they’ll even program all those buttons you’ve been ignoring…and teach you how to use them.  Go ahead, give it a try. And leave a little time for fun while you're at it.

Oh, and by the way.  Make sure your cat has a special hidey hole you don’t tell anyone about.  It’ll keep them searching all week, and keep your cat sane through it all.  

Joy of sailingCoastal Boating (Reg. in Ireland No. 443222) is a division of Knowledge Clinic Ltd.
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