Los Boatyardigans | Cruising World

Los Boatyardigans

A boatyard isn't just a yard. It's a kingdom of creative adventure for liveaboard kids.

Boatyard Kids

A boatyard in Cartagena, Colombia, isn’t just a yard. It’s a kingdom of creative adventure for the likes of Emily Zartman.

Ben Zartman

I’d been concerned at first that our three little girls, then 6, 4 and almost 2 years old, would waste away with boredom during Ganymede’s five-week stay in a boatyard in Cartagena, Colombia. After all, they were used to playing on beaches, taking long walks ashore and enjoying rides in the dinghy. But there was no beach at the boatyard, and walking was out: The Manzanillo Marina Club is located in the seamiest part of town, and anything pleasant and safe was a long taxi ride away.

Danielle, my wife, and I had dreamed, when we’d planned this haulout months before, of renting an apartment in the lovely Old Town, where flower-festooned wooden balconies droop lazily over narrow colonial streets. Truth be told, we’d dreamed up a lot of things, from a worst-case-scenario three-day quickie bottom job to six relaxing months in an airy set of rooms overlooking the harbor while Ganymede received a much-needed refit and upgrade.

Like all of our decisions, it hinged on cost, and in the end, the kitty had neither allowed gross opulence nor left us destitute of means. We’d wound up just south of in-between, moving into one of the marina’s studio apartments for five weeks so that Ganymede could be emptied out for some minor but dusty inside projects. This meant that I’d be kept busy from dawn till dusk doing a bottom job, reworking the cockpit so it’d drain, sanding, varnishing, glassing — all the wonderful things that eat up boatyard days with alarming speed. Danielle would devote all her spare time to sorting and reducing the incredible mountain of stuff I’d dug out of deep lockers and piled in the tiny room till there was barely space to walk. But what were the girls to do? I feared that it would be a dreadful time for them.

As with most of my worries, I could’ve spared myself the trouble. Tiny children who’ve grown used to the confined spaces of a 31-foot boat can find amusement anywhere. There were beds you could jump on! There were newborn puppies in the laundry room! And there was a barely functional TV in the marina lounge.

Ganymede carries no TV, so each day, the girls caught up on their favorite show, a sort of musical cartoon featuring five little animals who rely on their vivid imaginations to transform their backyard into completely different worlds. No matter that the songs are clumsily dubbed in Spanish; every day while Damaris, the youngest, had her nap, Antigone and Emily would watch a couple of episodes of Los Backyardigans.

It was good that the TV didn’t pick up many channels; when the girls weren’t having school lessons or sewing with their mother, they wandered outside more often to find stuff to do. A few hammocks slung near the boat kept them pretty busy, and whenever there was a wood scrap or some planer shavings, they were immediately annexed for whatever bug cage or pretend garden the children were working on. Very soon the area immediately next to Ganymede became exclusively “ours”: tiny boats made from coconut shells, bits of plank and smooth rocks were set out for the paint to dry; ramshackle houses were erected, knocked down and rebuilt; a garden of transplanted weeds sprouted from a gravel heap. Every day while I sanded the hull, painted locker lids or varnished spice racks, a different imaginary game would unfold. Once they were little girls lost in the woods. Later they took turns being the mommy and the baby. Then the hammocks became dinghies and they were shipwrecked sailors, scanning the horizon for land.

Of course, we didn’t spend all our time cooped up in the yard. Once or twice a week we took a taxi to the nearest mall to enjoy the air-conditioning and load up on groceries. And when even that turned to routine, we’d take a taxi all the way to the old colonial city and wander for a while among fragrant streets, eat at our favorite little hole-in-the-wall (soup and an entree cost the equivalent of $3.50), and feed the pigeons in front of the cathedral. The area was so different from our gritty end of town that it almost seemed to be a different country. Still, the majority of our time was spent inside the marina compound, which in the girls’ play was transformed daily from vast prairie to blue ocean to tenebrous forest.

“Look at them,” I told Danielle one day as we took a break from sanding in the cockpit. “They’re like those little backyardigans that they like to watch.”

“More like boatyardigans,” she said with a laugh. “Look where we are.”

It was true. Surrounded by grubby boats, rusty stands, bald car tires and dust, the children’s play continued, not just unhindered but actually helped along by all the surrounding clutter that they effortlessly incorporated into their imaginary scenarios. Since then, I’ve not worried about their entertainment. I know now that however far we may go and whatever strange places we may visit, our little boatyardigans will be at home.

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