Baby On Board

Is it possible to sail with a toddler, have fun, and stay sane?

Child Life Jacket

Jen Brett

Kylie and Nick Hughes sounded desperate: Is it possible, they wrote, to charter in the British Virgin Islands with a 16-month-old toddler and have a good time and remain sane? CW Associate editor Jen Brett, who lives aboard a 44-foot ketch with her husband and their 7-year-old and 2-year-old daughters, quickly responded with tips and suggestions based on her years of chartering and cruising. Here is her advice:

Hi Kylie and Nick,

Good for you for wanting to take your son sailing! And you’re smart for thinking of what the challenges could be beforehand.


I live aboard a 44-foot ketch with my husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 2, so I am familiar with being aboard with kids; however, being aboard your own boat is a lot different than being aboard a charter boat (think how easy it is to be at home with your son compared to being at someone else’s house that may not be set up for little kids). Before we moved aboard this boat 3.5 years ago, we did do a couple of charters with our older daughter- 1 in the BVI aboard a monohull when she was about 20 months old, and 1 aboard a big trawler in the San Juan Islands when she was two, so from those experiences, here are my suggestions:

– Consider chartering a catamaran as having a large, level place to play, even when under way, will make things easier.

– If possible, bring another couple or family with you. On our first charter we had another couple aboard and on the second, we had my husband’s whole family and having another set of eyes and hands make the charter experience much easier and more fun. Especially if you two will be doing all of the boat handling yourselves, it’s nice to have someone watch the baby while you’re busy (and you know he’s safe). And dinners aboard are more fun with more grown-ups to talk to 🙂


– If it’s not possible to bring someone else with you, think about what you’ll do with him while docking, anchoring, etc. There are definitely plenty of opinions about this, but most people that I know that have sailed with a baby or toddler will utilize the car seat or a portable high chair (we’ve done both) to keep the baby safe when both parents are needed for boat handling. My daughter never minded being strapped in in the cockpit as it gave her a “front row seat” to all the action.

– Keep your sailing days short and plan plenty of time ashore to explore. Beaches are great, and swimming is fun too.

– If you think that he might be feeling at all seasick, keep him topsides as much as possible.


– In the BVI, use more sunscreen than you think necessary and don’t forget a hat and sunglasses for him. Long sleeved sun suits and rash guards are awesome. (can you tell my daughter got a pretty good sunburn when we were down there?)

– Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

– Bring toys and books that are new for him. The Crayola Color Wonder sets are great since he can color with markers and paint and not stain the upholstery 🙂


– Sleeping can be a little tricky at first, since it will be so new for him. Hopefully he’ll be so tired (sailing totally wears my kids out!) that he’ll just fall asleep easily. When we chartered in the BVI, we actually brought the Pack n’ Play with us and somehow figured out a way to cram it in one of the aft cabins, but I don’t think that I’d recommend that. Boat bunks are pretty secure and are usually only open at the head, so they’re more challenging to fall out of than a regular bed. Our toddler’s bunk has a lee cloth that we keep up which keeps her secure, but unfortunately charter boats don’t usually have these. I would take a look at your charter company’s website, take a look through the boats available, and try to choose one that you think will work the best, and then plan what you’ll need to bring accordingly. Another thought that I just had, and I have no idea if this would work, but Aerobed makes this awesome kids air mattress that’s small and has a rim around it so the child doesn’t roll off. We’ve used ours on lots of trips in hotel rooms and houses and it’s great (the kids love it). It’s super easy to pack, so it might be an option on the boat if you don’t like the sleeping arrangements or maybe he wants to nap in the cockpit or something.

– Plan, plan, plan- I’ve done lot of traveling with my girls, and at first, I used to just “wing it,” which doesn’t work out too well. A trip to Disney changed this and now I plan as much as possible with regard to the kids’ eating and sleeping arrangements, their clothes, toys, schedule, etc. Now trips are MUCH better and there is a lot less stress involved for everyone.

– Start early- get your son used to being on a boat and wearing a life jacket this summer. Also consider getting him used to taking showers (easier with a handheld shower), or take an inflatable bath tub on the boat with you.

– Life jackets- My older daughter used a Mustang Lil’ Legends for years and never complained. My younger daughter is about 24 pounds and has a Salus, which is an awesome jacket and fits her perfectly (they’re hard to find though).

– Try to keep to his regular schedule as much as possible (and bring his favorite snacks).

– Consider bringing a portable DVD player (for down time, bad weather, or to keep him occupied during anchoring or something)

– The dinghy hasn’t really been a problem for us. Usually the rides are short, and there’s so much to look at that my daughter never really fusses about sitting in my lap.

-Best boat/dinghy toy: bubbles. If we’re sailing or in the dink, and someone is fussy, bubbles are a big hit. You can get the “spill-proof” containers (which are so awesome) and the kids can do it themselves.

So in response to your question “is it possible to sail with a toddler, have fun, and stay sane,” I would say yes, as long as you prepare during the summer, plan, and adjust your expectations (less sailing, more exploring and keeping to a kid schedule).

Good luck and please let me know if you have any more questions!

Jen Brett