Sailing Totem: Facing Fears—Kid Boat Edition

Afraid to take your kids cruising? Read on as this experienced cruising mom addresses the most common fears.

November 19, 2019
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Mairen and Siobhan
Keeping each other company: Mairen, 17, and Siobhan, 15. Isla Danzante, Mexico 2019 Behan Gifford

Taking kids cruising benefits parents and children alike. I shared top reasons why recently: cruising instilled patience, confidence and independence in our kids while offering them a priceless education and family bond. But it’s a LOT easier to say with hindsight than it is looking in from the outsider’s lens. Asking parents what holds them back – what worries gave them pause about taking the leap? – produced a range of responses, addressed here in key themes.

Family/friend rejection

It’s hard to hear from people you love, and hope would support your endeavors, that they think you are a little crazy (best case) or criminal at worst. They may see your choice to do this unconventional, wonderful adventure as a judgement against them and their choice to remain…conventional. No sugar coating: this is a realistic fear, and it happens! Not to everyone, but to an unfortunate number of us. Take some comfort knowing that these reactions are typically based on 1) misunderstanding / lack of information, and 2) a popular culture based on fear, and possibly 3) a bit of self-absorption too (who gets to define the way you live?).

This shouldn’t stop you: if they can’t see their way off the hamster wheel, it’s not your problem. But how to cope? Be cautious about who you share your plans with. Seek out safe places to talk about your plans: those friends who support you and are happy for you, and won’t shift their uninformed fears into your psyche.


We were served a generous portion of disbelief and negativity, and came to be very selective about sharing our plans. Those friends who were our champions remain priceless.

Boat kids having a blast across a 6+ year age spread: Langkawi, Malaysia, 2014 Behan Gifford


The popular view of socialization approves of slotting kids of the same age and probably mostly the same socio-economic class (and likely undifferentiated in a host of other ways as well) together as Best. What’s healthy about that? Why would the diverse, active social opportunities of cruising kids be considered worse? I reject it flat-out, with one important and much less specific twist: kids do need other kids.

In fact, there are myriad opportunities for boat kids to socialize, and the options available to them are much healthier than mainstream socialization. Human influences in their lives range more widely across age, gender, wealth, and culture –better preparation for real world than a narrowly slotted cultural channel.

Boat kids
Boat kids have long term friendships, too: met 2013, photographed in Baja, 2019 Behan Gifford


One parent wrote – “I worry that we’ll be out of sync with other kid boats, always sailing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and my kids will be horribly lonely.” This is a reality for some boats, but very addressable, because the parents are in control! Parents can make the choice to seek out and be in company with other kid boats. Or, they can leave it to chance, and then there’s higher risk of lonely kids. Connecting with kid boats involves effort, but not a lot; it’s entirely achievable.

When we sailed west across thousands of miles through Indonesia, we knew there would be a dry spell without kid boats. After nearly six months without any cruising boats, we caught wind of a race/rally in East Malaysia with a Kiwi family participating, and hustled to get there. It was the only time we’d joined an organized rally, and we were ALL ready for a little social life at that point! You’re in control, and can anticipate – and choose – your path relative to company.

Tidepooling afternoon Jamie with Siobhan, age 5, and Niall, age 10. Los Gatos, BCS; 2009 Behan Gifford

The wrong age

It’s not unusual for parents in the privileged position of being able to take a sabbatical cruise with their family to agonize over picking the optimal age for it. This is a nice problem to have, and doesn’t really have a right/wrong answer – just caveats. Aim for roughly 5 to 11, and the transition aboard and everyday kid herding will be easiest; not coincidentally, where the bulk of other cruising kids fall.


Younger than the sweet spot? It’s just more work for parents who end up splitting duties …you can’t effectively be on watch, and on kids, and get sufficient rest for longer passages. Not a cruise killer: just get crew when you need it, or calibrate your goals accordingly! Parents worry about waiting until kids are old enough for safety and memories; I think that’s overstated, as kids and families will benefit regardless and it’s not inherently any more dangerous. Teens/tweens? There’s more careful communication needed to make sure their need as humans finding their independent, path-to-adulthood voice and feelings and needs are met. But it’s hardly the wrong time, and maybe the best of all.

During our planning years, it was important to me to reach that post-diapers, easier-to-direct age. Hindsight? If we’d left sooner, we would have gained precious additional years of cruising.

Mairen and visitors
Sometimes the friends you make are ashore. Mairen and visitors in Saparua, Indonesia; 2015 Behan Gifford


As one parent put it: it’s not fear of homeschooling as much as the fear of homeschooling badly. In our culture, education is a major determinant in future options; taking ownership for your kids’ education is intimidating to the parent who assumed a school would just take care of that for them. Yet every parent has that responsibility, and the good news is that it really isn’t rocket science. It’s not easy – don’t get me wrong! It was, and still is, what I worry about most. But there are myriad resources to help families find a path that works for them. And that’s the key: being willing to try, and fail (or just flail a little), but pick up and try again – maybe with something entirely different. Homeschool writing guru Julie Bogart shared this gem from a coach– “there are no educational emergencies.” We have an infinite capacity to adjust, and adapt, and move forward.


Accept that it will be OK, in the end. That may sound trite – but in our experience, parents invested in the future happiness of their child (that is, pretty much all of us) see them through to the other side successfully. Tangible information helps: Totem’s homeschool resource page lists books, podcasts, videos, experts, and a list links to family stories about how they boatschool, as no two cruising families seem to do this alike.

Adding Coppercoat
The family that rolls Coppercoat together…adventures together? Puerto Penasco, Mexico; 2018 Behan Gifford

Everyday life

For parents accustomed to kids with lives scheduled from sunup to homework or bedtime routines, the idea of being 24×7 responsible for their activities feels daunting. But what will we do all day?! In fact, there is so much to keep us occupied on an everyday basis, and so much of it are things we can do with our children at a range of ages.

During our first year out, this dynamic alternately frightened and fascinated me. Cataloging a day’s activities helped with perspective. Our children walked on the waterfront, went swimming, observed crab behavior, talked about the ecology of an estuary, created an elaborate story and acted it out with their Legos and animals, learned about the how current and wind differently affect our boat and those around us, and helped with chores on the boat. Between exploring and learning from the world around them were the cruising-life padding of time to just enjoy each other’s’ company.

One of our family goals is to help normalize a view of family cruising as the healthy alternative that it is. It’s an uphill battle given our subset-of-a-niche status in the population, but if we can kick some of these unfounded fears into perspective – hopefully we can help more boats, families or otherwise, set sail.

These fears are specific to families aboard: they also share the common concerns about storms, and personal safety from piracy or disaster on board. Finances and medical emergencies play in, too. These fears aren’t kid-boat-specific… that’s a future post.

Additional resources

Voyaging with Kids: addressing these fears in greater depth is Voyaging with Kids, the book I co-authored with two other cruising parents. Includes input from more than 60 different cruising families and chapters dedicated to babies and teens.


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