Sailing Totem: Top Reasons Cruising is Great for Families

Thinking of cruising with your family? Just do it!

three teens on totem's bow
Tight tribe: siblings on the bow off the Costa Rica coastBehan Gifford

Over the years, we have run into many couples cruising as empty-nesters who expressed regret they didn’t go with their children. The reasons for waiting are individual, but tend to follow similar themes. Fears of missing out on the cultural rituals of an American childhood, perhaps wanting more savings to go, feeling intimidated by homeschooling, or just not sure they were up to the challenge. It’s not easy, but is anything worth having easy? Is raising children ever easy? In fact, taking children cruising offers them distinct benefits. These are our top reasons that cruising is great for families.

Cruising instills patience, confidence & independence in kids.

Boat kids generally have less structured time, and larger unscheduled periods to work with. They (or their parents) cannot turn to an always-on internet to backfill gaps. This compels cruising kids to be resourceful, and to make their own fun – an invaluable life skill. Instead of needing to be entertained, they rise to the occasion and spin that time into the creative, practical, or fun outlet of their choosing. Learning how to use time—or embrace not using it—can take a transition period. In the early days when our kids would say “I’m bored!” Jamie would respond with “Hello, Bored, how are you?” I’m great at coming up with chores lists for kids who announce they need something to do, too. They figured out that they’d work out what to do on their own.

kids foraging seafood
Kid foraged dinner of crab, coconut, and who knows what else! Somewhere in the Indian Ocean.Behan Gifford

Confidence is borne from of internalizing ability. With the opportunity to make real contributions to our everyday life, in boat handling or watchkeeping or maintenance, boat kids see and appreciate what they are capable of achieving in a very real way. Self-esteem swells in a kid who recognizes their accomplishment in a job well done: peer group whisperings (real or imagined) that judge how well and crush that esteem help no one, and are largely absent in our world. Family bonds are strengthened through the gift of time.

Spending quality time as family was a major reason we chose to go cruising with kids. Our life before was hectic, over-scheduled, and had far too little “just because” togetherness. We’d spare our offspring middle school (who really likes those years, anyway?), trading it for sabbatical years afloat, and put time back in. That this time is largely shared experiences instead of spectating, shuttling or overseeing speaks to the quality and the opportunity to know our kids better. Cruising has also fostered sibling bonds. Sure, they still bicker over who’s turn it really is to do the dishes or laundry – we’re normal! But years as playmates and companions have made them a tight tribe today, one that has each other’s backs no matter what. Normal life doesn’t naturally set up young siblings to be a team, a dynamic that would have gotten harder as our kids grew older and activities inevitably channeled them in different directions to special interest groups. Instead, we’ve got kids who share unprompted that they are each other’s best friends.

kids in cubbies
Understanding the world beyond their picket fence is priceless.Behan Gifford

Understanding the world beyond their picket fence is priceless.

We left an ideal home behind: a charming, secure community where our children could attend excellent public schools and a thoughtful populace supported greater goods. Was that crazy to give up? Not at all. Seeing the world slowly has imbued in our children a global perspective they couldn’t have gained in a Mayberry childhood: to have views based on first-hand experience, instead of media they read or see, about the very real issues we face from social justice to climate change and more.

Dorcas and Mairen
Dorcas teaches Mairen how to weave a pandanus mat: Budi Bui atoll, Papua New Guinea.Behan Gifford

They’ve heard islanders in Papua New Guinea describe how their communities are sold out to foreign extraction companies for timber, mining, or fishing rights. They’ve swum on enough reefs to recognize a healthy coral reef ecosystem, as well as one that’s overfished or impacted by climate change and coral bleaching. They’ve gained an appreciation for how rich their options are in life, their control over their destiny, and how precious and uncommon this is in the world. It is a priceless education.

Sailing away as a family can feel complicated and overwhelming, but if you can make the lifestyle choices to go cruising at all, you can make them to go cruising with children. With hindsight perspective from 11 years of cruising with our kids—across ages that spanned four to fledged—I say with confidence that going cruising as family is the best decision we ever made.

Mairen and Siobhan
14 and 16 year old Mairen and Siobhan help mix and apply barrier coats to Totem; Mexico.Behan Gifford

For many parents, the barrier to cruising as a family isn’t that they don’t embrace the rewards – it’s fear of the challenges… and that, friends, is another post! Do you have concerns that hold you back from making the leap with kids? Send them through, I’ll shape the piece based on input.