Sailing Totem: Great Holiday Gifts for Boat Kids of All Ages

Who doesn’t want a new Leatherman?
ENO hammock
Swinging away aboard Serendipity. Lilah enjoys the Eno hammock in front of the Pitons. Stephanie Ferrie

This year, our holiday gift guide has a new lens. I’ve been gathering gift ideas and asking myself “What are those great fits for a boat kid?” While I was putting my list together I realized that these gift ideas apply overwhelmingly for adults as well. Is that because cruising keeps us young? I’ll let you decide. The signature ENO hammock from Eagles Nest Outfitters is the perfect example. What kid of any age wouldn’t want to swing away?

Kids of all ages

Ebooks are essential. Browse and buy titles for your entire crew. Ebooks are also a lifesaver when kids hit the chapter book age. I’m planning to upgrade our family to the new 11th generation Kindles (with USB-C ports) this year. 

scrimshaw dolphin design
Naia’s knife with scrimshaw dolphin design. Cindy Wallach

Cool tools.  Leatherman multitool or whittling knife are always a hit for kids and adults. Kids feel empowered when they can own an adult tool, which is a big first step when teaching kids how to safely use tools.


Safety gear that’s fun. Kid-size climbing harnesses are a great piece of safety gear for offshore cruising kids. Make it fun by trying out a safety harness at a climbing wall before you sail away.

Camera gear. For the memories, natch. Even little ones can have a kid-friendly camera. Or consider something that’s rugged by design that both adults and kids can use, like a GoPro (eying this one). Our GoPro 7’s dome is still the best $50 I’ve ever spent on camera gear.

Tune in. Some of us prefer headsets (me), some prefer earbuds (Mairen). However you plug in, earbuds help everyone respectfully enjoy their tunes, books and podcasts while sharing a small space. Audiobooks were huge for our kids on passages when they were little. We have a larger Bluetooth speaker (it’s even waterproof!) that goes around the boat with us, and Siobhan has a smaller version that’s perfect for cabin tunes.


Light it up. Everyone needs a headlamp. Our girls love the mood set by LED pillar lights in their cabins. How about a Luci lantern, an LED rechargeable lantern powered by sunlight? Their cool, solar-powered string lights now come in multi-color strands.

Mug Up
Every member of the Mug Up crew has a name and stickers to identify their mug. Jillian Greenawalt

Stay hydrated. Personalize a water bottle. The easiest way to make sure each member of the crew is drinking enough water is to provide everyone with their own personal water bottle. It’s also a great way to avoid having too many tumblers, mugs and cups to wash. 

Fun in the water

Quality snorkel gear. Splurge on good gear. Buy your snorkel gear at a local shop because you’ll want to try it on for fit, or exchange it if needed. We last loaded up at Divers Direct retail outlets in Florida, but Behan also loves the freediving fins she got at a La Paz dive shop. Inexpensive fins and masks are fine for guests and to use as backup gear. Carry spares to avoid heartache when you lose a piece.


Look below. Have a look below with a bathyscope for non-snorkelers and tide pooling. This one is fantastic but costly. You can also try your DIY hand at fabricating a bathyscope with a Homer bucket and plexiglass. Handmade gifts rock.

SUPs, kayaks and boogie boards. Do you want transportation or fun? Kid-size kayaks can mean freedom for the younger set. Our SUP gets a lot of mileage. Boogie boards are a blast for beach time. 

Cover up. Rash guards and unisuits aren’t just for sun protection. They keep the stingy things off your skin. I plan on treating our crew (don’t tell!) to their choice of Ocean skins from Waterlust this year. Waterlust creates and sells clothing for ocean causes. When you wear it, you’re a walking, talking advocate for the science it represents. It’s so cool that you can pick your cause of choice, including tiger shark research, sea turtle research and spotted eagle ray research. Knowing our family, we might all want whale sharks, though. 


Cool beach towels. We’ve used Turkish towels from Marmara imports for years. They are durable, organic, dry quickly, store compactly and come in fun colors. They’re on sale here.

blue pool mat
The blue pool mat trailing behind Chinook, shown here in the Bahamas, is a boat kid magnet. Mary Newton

Floating lounge. Everybody wants to play behind the boat with a cool lily-pad style swim mat. They’re not cheap, but they are loads of fun. A caveat, though, they are awkward to store. TRU crew on the catamaran Chinook’s buddy boat had one. When the two boats parted ways, it only took the Chinook crew a short while to get their own.

Fun and games

Board games. We love to play board games on Totem. Find our favorite games in this post, along with tricks for boat-friendly storage.

Building toys. Building toys are a win with the younger set and boat-friendly choices include Legos, connector sets, magnet tiles (keep them away from the autopilot!) and snap circuits. Honestly, Lego is the big winner here and we found they’re best with a drop mat that doubles for storage.

Quality field guides. We appreciate them, but our kids did too – far more than I ever anticipated. They have sharp eyes and love to help make a correct identification. See our books for cruisers page for field guide ideas.

Felt theater
Totem crew Siobhan and Mairen play with their felt theater in Mexico, 2009. Legos litter the settee. Behan Gifford

Felt theaters. Felt theaters with puppets or story boards with reusable stickers can fuel endless hours of imaginary play, and it doesn’t matter if the boat is rolling. 

Card games. Card games such as Uno can be great for playing across all ages and languages. I’m going to pick up extra sets to give away to people we meet in faraway islands.

Create! Crafts are a great way for kids to pass the time on passages. Our artists always love good paper and high-pigment watercolors or pencils. If you’re not sure what to do, try a kit (like those from Klutz) which has everything you need.

Active boat kid gear

Fishing tackle. Fishing tackle is another area where you introduce kids to grownup stuff and and let them feel like they’re the king or queen of the world. Handlines are lightweight, affordable, and legit fishing gear.

Practical fun. The TRU crew on Captain Musick get all kinds of mileage out of a collapsible silicone bucket. They keep one for cleaning inside and one for cleaning outside, another one for playing in sand and rocks and for shell collecting and clamming. The collapsible buckets don’t take up as much room as rigid buckets and can stack nicely right under the galley sink.

Binoculars. Your Nikons may be rugged enough, but they might be too big for a kid’s face. Start by understanding binoculars (REI has a great guide) and buy what you can afford from a trusted source. Beware of some imported binoculars on Amazon with sketchy, paid-for, 5-star reviews.

Scoot around. Our kids loved their razor scooters. Bikes are a storage nightmare, but these fold up and store in the lazarette.

Survival book. The Lost Book of Adventure stokes the imagination while providing practical information that a boat kid might actually use. It gets rave reviews from the Atmospheric crew. Wrap it up with a flint (Niall has this fire starter); their son is in charge of starting the beach bonfires now.

That time the kids spent 24 hours on a Pacific motu, foraging and building their own shelter. Behan Gifford

Still stumped?

Browse through a dozen other gift guide posts from prior years if you’re still looking for ideas.

Island life
They won’t remember or care what was under the Christmas tree when they can live this life. Behan Gifford

Remember, it’s not the stuff. The truth is that we’re all under the false pressure of cultural norms to have a pile of gifts to open on the holiday. You can make coupons where a family member gets to be captain for the day, or pick the day’s movie, or a pass on dish duty. We tend to have a couple of items per person and draw on other traditions. I remember how much I worried about our drastically pared down Christmas during our first year of cruising. Then our kids declared the day “The Best Ever” with no reservations. While finding that perfect gift is a joy, that joy can be found in simply sharing experiences together.