On Watch: Fatty Goodlander Tricks the Kids Into an Education

Kids can learn a whole lot while they think they're just having fun on a boat.
Fatty Goodlander in the dunk chair
The key with kids, boats and learning is to identify those teachable moments when students don’t realize they’re students. Time consuming? Frustrating at times? Of course! Being a good parent isn’t easy. Fatty Goodlander

Perspective is everything. To Puritans, being publicly dunked was a humiliating punishment. To our grandkids, however, “the dunking chair” provides endless fun. 

Even the most modest ­cruising sailboats probably have all the bits needed to create a dunking chair: a bosun’s chair, a spinnaker pole and a couple of halyards. A kid swims into the chair, is slowly hoisted “super high” (which might translate to 6 inches for a youngster) amid much fanfare, and is then abruptly released as the crew cheers. 

“Again! Again!” is the immediate, universal response of the dunkees. 

Here’s the key: Your job as skipper and organizer is to make sure that everyone is safe without appearing to do so. Rule No. 2 is equally simple: Don’t teach. Allow them to learn. There should be no helicopter parents afloat. 

Fun is fun—and fun is best done for its own sake. Kids instinctively know this, while adults lose a bit of this sage wisdom each day. So, don’t turn this into a lesson. Keep the focus on the goofy fun. 

On the other hand, do ­display your lustful enthusiasm at every opportunity. What could be better than being dunked in the water? Not much.

Kids love to be watched, to receive attention. The audio track is important. “Look at that splash!” and “You were soooo high!” and “Did you see how Tessa swam to the surface, Grandma? Was that cool, or what?”

You can’t lay it on too thick. Life will soon temper their ­embryonic egos. Right now, the objective is to nurture and encourage—to make them preen with their newfound marine skills. (The most dangerous moment is when, underwater, they swim out of the chair. Beware. And be ready to hoist if a foot gets caught.)

Of course, our daughter Roma’s marine skills didn’t start with the dunking chair. When she was 2 months old, we started holding Roma Orion while in the water, to acclimate her to being wet, while we were wet and having family fun. We’d hand her back and forth. One of us would stay with her while the other parent swam and Roma watched. 

No pressure, and we never scared her or stressed her out. This wasn’t about her passing a test; this was about the family having fun together. 

When she was 4 months old, we’d take her to a pool almost daily. My wife, Carolyn, and I would stand a couple of feet apart. We’d grin, slowly rise up, take deep breaths, and then the person holding the baby would strongly blow into her face. Instinctively, babies hold their breath when blown upon. 

Then, we’d all three ­submerge. At first, for only a moment, but, within a couple of days, for increasing durations.

Roma loved it. She’d look around and see her other parent underwater. She’d see bubbles. Soon, she’d hold her breath whenever we’d take her underwater. 

We’d constantly hand her back and forth on the surface, and play games while doing so. Next, we’d submerge together, and I’d hand her to Carolyn underwater. Roma thought this was just about the coolest, most exciting thing in the universe. 

Gradually, we’d get farther and farther apart, and Roma would help by wiggling her arms and legs. Progress. (Kids’ heads are extremely heavy in comparison to their bodies, so holding their head out of the water is far more difficult than swimming underwater.) 

Roma learned to swim with a minimum of instruction. We’d later have her hold onto the side of the pool or onto our dinghy, and then swim to us while we inched away. 

Ever since, Roma has loved the water. And not only did she learn to swim well before her first birthday, but she’s since taught dozens (hundreds?) of kids to swim. She also earned her PADI scuba-diving card and is a PADI-certified rescue diver. 

First fun, then accomplishment, followed by high interest, and eventually success on all fronts. 

Roma Orion, her 12-year-old daughter, Sokù Orion, and Tessa Marie all come to sail, cruise, and swim with Grandpa and Grandma nearly every weekend now. Goodlanders easily bond over water, and we firmly believe that the family who swims together, stays together.

Each of our “bilge rats,” of course, vividly recalls the first time they were able to swim unassisted around the boat. By long tradition, I am forced to immediately jump into the water with all my clothes on. What could be more fun than having the befuddled skipper swim to the surface, sadly holding his (fake, prepared in advance) wallet over his head?

Did Roma or our grandkids balk at any point? Sure. Roma would happily dive over the side in nearly 30,000 feet of water (off the Puerto Rican trench) but get nervous at a beach if she discovered that she was in water over her head. Fine. We allowed her to work through it with our support and encouragement. It didn’t become a big deal, and, within the month, her fear was gone. 

Ditto Sokù’s sudden fear of live fish swimming up to her. And Tessa’s amazement at seeing a huge shark glide by in the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea. Eventually, all of these “greatest fears to be faced” turned into ho-hum, everyday fun experiences.

Swimming is great exercise, sure, but it is also highly empowering. Some rock-­huggers are too timid to get to this point. Those who do, however, profit for a lifetime. 

More About the Dunking Chair

Now, since I’m an adult and I’m writing for, mostly, adults, let’s take a moment to take a deeper dive into the dunking chair. 

First off, the connection ­between the bosun chair and halyard should be soft. A simple bowline will do. Why? So that no heavy or sharp hardware, such as a snap shackle, hits the kid during the drop. 

Also, the end of the spin pole should be held aloft independently of the hoisting halyard. That way, when the kid drops, the pole remains in place. 

Initially, it is good to have an adult in the water. While I operate the halyard myself for the first few hoists, I then complain that I’m too old and enlist one of the older kids to help. This allows me to talk to them about rope burns, how to operate a halyard winch, how to cast off a halyard safely, how to avoid having your head cracked by the winch handle, and the difference between casting off and easing. 

Obviously, no one should be standing in a loop on the deck; the deck crew must be all clear before the halyard is let go. 

In a few words: This is about teamwork and common sense. A dozen lessons in ­seamanship (and life) are revealed, but without anyone being a boring adult. Kids are smart. They don’t like being talked down to any more than adults do. Yet, they know little. It is the adult’s job to be one step ahead, always. 

Lessons for Life

Having been raised aboard the schooner Elizabeth, and having raised our daughter aboard the ketch Carlotta and the sloop Wild Card, we are now coastal cruising with our grandkids aboard the 43-foot center-cockpit ketch Ganesh in Southeast Asia. I can tell you, dear reader, that the key to kids, boats and learning is not to teach them when you feel like it, but rather to teach them during a teachable moment when they feel like it. The best teachers have students who don’t even realize they’re students. From their perspectives, they’re just fellow adventurers.

Is this difficult? Time consuming? Frustrating at times? Of course. Being a good parent isn’t easy, and nobody ­promised you that it would be. 

When Roma was born, I didn’t particularly wish that she did well academically, only that she be an avid reader. We’d be sitting at anchor with Roma playing with her (homemade) dolls on the cabin sole while my wife and I read on opposite sides of our vessel. When Roma would become bored, she’d bother me to see if she could stir me into action and capture my attention. 

“Don’t bother me,” I’d say as I returned to my Wilbur Smith novel. “I’m wrestling with a lion in Africa.”

“No, you’re not, silly Daddy-O,” Roma would say, “You’re reading a book.”

“How bad is it?” I would ask. “My shoulder wound, I mean. That lion bit me pretty badly. Am I losing much blood?”

“Don’t be crazy, Daddy-O!” she’d say with a giggle. “There’s no lions on St. John.”

And for the remainder of the day, we’d talk about Africa, medical first aid and lions.

“Could you check for me?” I’d ask Roma, “Just to be sure?”

“Mom, Dad thinks there’s a lion in the head,” she’d say with a giggle. 

One of our major cruising expenses from 1985 to 1998 was children’s books: first, the Ladybird series of books; then the Baby Sitters series; then Pippi Longstocking; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; anything by Judy Blume—right up to The Clan of the Cave Bear as Roma headed off to Brandeis University on a full merit scholarship. (With her master’s degree, she currently works with Singapore Management University.)

Here’s the truth of it: If you raise a child aboard, he or she is seldom more than a dozen feet from you or your spouse. Everyone hears one another other. Everyone smells one another other. Everyone experiences everyone’s moods, and the moods of mother ocean as well. The result, if you work at it, is a closeness and interdependence that landlubbers can’t even comprehend. 

My father was an orphan, deserted by his mother and taken away from his alcoholic father. His plan to buy our schooner wasn’t merely to sail to Tahiti; it was to raise his family aboard as we wandered the world. I guess it worked. I’m still wandering, if at a more sedate pace than when I first purchased my double-­ended sloop Corina at 15 years of age. 

And, I will say that the best thing in the world isn’t to be raised aboard; it is instead to be a second-generation liveaboard who is raising his child aboard. Ditto, our grandkids. 

Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard and ocean-sailed for 63 years, 53 of them with his wife, Carolyn. They still take turns hoisting each other in the dunking chair.