What works for us: Boys on the boat

Porter, Magnus and Andy on the beach with Yahtzee behind
Porter, Magnus and Andy on the beach with Yahtzee in the background

Other parents often ask us how it is raising the boys on the boat. Whether they are aspiring to the cruising lifestyle themselves or are merely curious, their many questions are usually valid and our answers typically boil down to, “this is what works for us.” We say, “what works for us” because, like many things in cruising, and life in general, the way we make things work might not be how someone else does it — and that’s fine. And making things work often depends on having the right things aboard for every situation.

On any sailboat there is only so much room for these “things”, though. Food, clothing, sailing gear, books, electronics, games and toys can quickly fill up the boat. Extraneous or unnecessary things that find their way aboard are usually found pretty quickly, and we are good at giving belongings away that we’ve outgrown or simply no longer use. We’ve also become better at recognizing what will and will not work aboard before it even comes close to making the cut.

Sails, safety gear, kids stuff, clothes, and more — all this has to go somewhere or it's gone.
Sails, tools, safety gear, kids stuff, clothes and more — all this has to go somewhere or it’s gone.

What’s happened over the course of our three and half years living aboard Yahtzee — two and half of that with a child — is that we’ve whittled our “stuff” down to what is functional, important and in some cases, indispensable. Not residing at a marina means that we don’t have the convenience of a dock box or a pier to stash things. And we don’t have a storage unit, so we can’t hide our possessions out of sight and mind. The bottom line is that everything aboard Yahtzee must have a purpose — nothing more so than all the kid gear, which can pile up at an immensely fast and surprising rate.

Here’s a list of things for the boys that work for us (and some things that haven’t).

Safety: I’m going to start with safety because this tends to be one of the first questions asked. Our steadfast rule for Porter, and Magnus when he can walk, is that once you step up out of the companionway you’re either in a lifejacket or clipped in. And if we’re on a dock, a lifejacket is on no matter what. That’s just prudent seamanship with kids aboard, let alone parenting.

Porter and Magnus in their life jackets
Porter and Magnus in their life jackets

For lifejackets we’ve gone with the infant neoprene type (0 to 30 pounds) from West Marine that have the head flap. For a child we wouldn’t consider not having the head flap on a PFD, as it helps keep their face out of the water once the jacket rolls them onto their back. We’ve tested this and it works. We also have a Mustang kids lifejacket for Porter that he is on the verge of wearing once he outgrows the West Marine one.

Porter keeping watch in his harness and tether
Porter keeping watch in his harness and tether

We bought harnesses for the boys at REI that are actually kids climbing harnesses. The Fragle by Edelrid is an excellent choice over other “marine” kids harnesses because it has leg straps, not just a single crotch strap, and it fits comfortably over the shoulders and around the torso. It also has a clip in point on the front and back, and Porter has even gone up the mast in his. For tethers, we prefer the elastic safety tether from West Marine.

Porter climbing the mast in his harness
Porter climbing the mast in his harness

In addition to PFDs and harnesses, we also installed lifeline netting around the outside of the boat. I don’t know if it’s more of a safety or peace-of-mind thing, but it has definitely saved a few objects from going overboard.

Porter using the lifeline and netting as an assist while doing Yoga on deck.
Porter using the lifeline and netting as an assist while doing Yoga on deck.

Carriers and stroller: Whether at a dock or going to shore by kayak or dingy, if we’re going even a modest distance on land, we either carry the boys in carriers or have one of them in our stroller.

Jill wearing Magnus in the Beco
Jill wearing Magnus in the Beco

For Magnus we use a Beco Baby Carrier and for Porter we use the Toddler Tula. With both carriers we can wear the boys on the front or back, and until Magnus gets a bit bigger, we typically have him on us while in the kayak or dinghy.

Jill, Porter and Magnus ready for a stroll
Jill, Porter and Magnus ready for a stroll

Our stroller is a Bloom Zen that we got as a gift before Porter was born. As far as we know, they don’t make it anymore, but it’s great for the boat because it’s light and folds down to be quite flat and small, which makes it easy to store on deck. To cover it from rain and sea-spray, we bought a large backpack fly from REI that has worked perfectly.

The stroller folded and covered on deck
The stroller folded and covered on deck

Seats: We found out pretty quickly that it is helpful to have a number of seats aboard for various activities. Eating, lounging, playing, using the head, and sleeping are all infinitely easier for everyone if seating for the boys is properly taken care of. This might not be the case if we just sat at a dock and never moved, but we move and sail a lot, so we had to have places for the boys to be while underway.

While eating, Porter sits in an Inglesina chair that fastens quickly to our drop-leaf table. And Magnus uses a Prince Lionheart chair that can be moved just about anywhere. He’ll soon outgrow that chair, though, and will get one like Porter’s.

Magnus and Porter awaiting lunch in their seats
Magnus and Porter awaiting lunch in their seats

Having a carseat aboard is quite helpful for a baby. Porter and now Magnus have used a Maxi-Cosi seat that is light and compact, and fits perfectly in the cockpit or between the lee cloth on the starboard settee down below. Another great seating option for a baby is a bouncy chair that they can layback and sleep in. Magnus graduated out of his pretty quickly.

Magnus napping in the main cabin as we race
Magnus napping in the main cabin as we race

Last December while potty training Porter, we bought a Nuby toilet seat that makes doing his thing on the head much easier and less messy. He took to it right away and can set it up by himself now that he’s got the potty thing down. Who knew there were so many seating options for kids?

Beds: Knowing that we wanted to have two children, one of the many reasons we chose Yahtzee was due to its three functional cabins. Magnus has the starboard side of the V-berth forward, Porter has the top bunk in the aft port cabin and Jill and I reside in the larger starboard aft cabin.

Yahtzee's layout
Yahtzee’s layout

For the V-berth, which was originally Porter’s bunk, Jill sewed a lee cloth crib that I then attached to various points on the ceiling. For all the non-sailors out there, a lee cloth is a piece of fabric that is connected at the outboard base of a bunk and then strung up in a way that won’t allow the person sleeping to roll out of bed.

Porter's top bunk in the port aft cabin
Porter’s top bunk in the port aft cabin with the lee cloth up

Yahtzee already had lee cloths on the starboard settee in the main cabin and on the top bunk in the port aft cabin, so we didn’t have to make those. The remaining areas of the boys’ cabins are used as storage for clothes, sails, tools and other miscellaneous items.

Magnus' bed in the V-berth
Magnus’ bed in the V-berth

When Porter and Magnus were babies they slept in a bassinet that fit in-between the lee cloth in the V-berth or in the main saloon. And for a boater’s version of Pack-and-Play, we have a small, pop-up tent that can be taken and setup almost anywhere.

The pop tent is perfect for naps or staying in the shade
The pop tent is perfect for the beach

Clothes: Cruising year-round in the Pacific Northwest means we’re sure to encounter inhospitable weather. Rain, wind and relatively cold conditions are frequent during the winter and if we’re not prepared to live outside in it, then we’ll be miserable and won’t have fun. For the boys we found one-piece Tuffo rain suits that are great at keeping them dry. They are also windproof and are large enough to allow them to layer underneath when it’s chilly out. Having a nice rain jacket and waterproof pants is also a good idea. And a solid pair of warm, waterproof boots is essential — for the boys we swear by Bogs.

Porter rockin' the Tuffo rain suit
Porter rockin’ the Tuffo rain suit and Bogs

As all PNW sailors know, it’s not always windy and rainy out. The spring, summer and fall can be quite sunny and nice and we have to protect ourselves from many hours of exposure to the sun as well. Porter tends to tan quite quickly, so rash guards, sun hats and sunscreens with zinc in them are all a must. We also have a bimini over our cockpit that can be setup quickly and easily to protect us all from the sun.

Tenders: Yahtzee came with an inflatable, soft-bottom dinghy that could be considered more of a raft than anything. So when we embarked on our full-time cruising adventure we bought a 14-foot kayak from West Marine that has two adult seats and a kid seat in-between. The kayak, which we affectionately call Spirit Bear, has been so great for us that we have stowed our old dinghy away. The kid’s seat is what really sold us on the kayak; typically Porter sits in front of the aft paddler and then the forward paddler wears Magnus. We also like the kayak because trips to shore are rarely far, and paddling is good exercise.

Jill and the boys taking a spin on Spirit Bear
Jill and the boys taking a spin on Spirit Bear

In September we added a new (to us) dinghy, Hornpipe, to the mix thanks to our friends on Nutmeg and have enjoyed having it, too. We can all pile in for a sail or row, or two of us can take it while the other two are in Spirit Bear. It’s also big enough to carry the stroller to shore if need be. Both boats fit well on Yahtzee’s foredeck and the sailing rig for the dink breaks down and stows away easily.

Hornpipe and Spirit Bear; note the stroller in the dink
Hornpipe and Spirit Bear; note the stroller in the dink

Would an inflatable with a hard bottom and suitable outboard be better for a family? Maybe, but we aren’t ready to plunk down the cash yet and are quite happy with what we have.

Playtime: The things we have aboard for the boy’s amusement and learning is probably the group that changes the most, and is the easiest to identify as things that aren’t needed aboard. As they grow out of toys, we are pretty quick to donate them and one of the most used in that category was a baby kicking mat. Porter and Magnus both played with it a lot, and it was easy to set-up and store, but once they started crawling it was over.

Magnus and Porter playing on the baby kicking mat
Magnus and Porter playing on the baby kicking mat

Books, games, balls, stuffed animals, musical instruments, art supplies, a play toolset and puzzles that are appropriate for both boys are our go-to playtime toys. We keep most of their toys in bins that are easy to store and the book shelf is stocked with many favorites. Another helpful addition has been a divider that Jill sewed and installed in the main saloon to cordon off play areas and doubles as a felt board.

Porter sitting in front of our library of kids books ... and a few cruising guides, too.
We read a lot! Porter sitting in front of our library of kids books. Jill even sewed a mini lee cloth so the books on the bottom shelf don’t fall out while we’re underway.
Divider Jill made to keep boys away from companionway
Divider Jill made to keep the boys away from the companionway
Jill made the other side of the divider a felt board
Jill made the other side of the divider a felt board

During the summer we have a collapsible dog bath that we setup in the cockpit and fill with water. Both boys love to play in this and it also makes a great bathtub. We used to have a plastic swing that we’d setup on the foredeck, but its size and shape made it tough to store, so we gave it away. For off the boat play, we bring balls to the park and have a mesh bag full of beach toys that we keep in the kayak to take ashore with us.

Porter playing in the cockpit pool
Porter playing in the cockpit pool

The key thing for us to remember when it comes to kids “stuff” aboard is that what we have is a constant evolution, and as long as the same amount of things are going off the boat that are coming on, we won’t live in too cluttered a space. Because when it gets cluttered on a 39-foot sailboat, it’s easy to tell.

For more on the things we have aboard for the boys and insights into how we cruise as a family, please attend our free “Cruising with Kids in the Pacific Northwest” seminar at the Seattle Boat Show on Friday, Jan 29 at 4:15 p.m.

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