So with the not-so-extensive experience of 18 consecutive days of cruising down the ICW and a few months of reflection, I have some advice and opinions on the challenges of cruising with children. Ok, ok…in our case it is the challenges of cruising with a single, four year old, child.
Before I get into it though I would like to address this silly idea about preparation through research. I exhaustively researched other cruising families hoping to glean some knowledge or insight that would make cruising with a four year old easier. At the very least I hoped to prepare myself for what was about to happen. It makes me laugh now. It is similar to how expecting parents study parenting books and experienced parents can only shake their heads at them and think: “There is no way to prepare for parenting.” Yet the process is encouraged anyway because preparation is good if it puts you in a mental and emotional mind frame to take on the challenge. The key is to keep your expectations low. Nothing substitutes real experience no matter how small. I advise some smaller shakedown trips, something we did not do. I went for the ‘Polar Bear Plunge’ method. (Remember, I moved onto a sailboat before ever being on one because…well…that’s how I roll.) So here is what our first 18 days of cruising with a four year old kid taught me:
1. Kids are very open to, and flexible in, new experiences. Much more so than adults. However, they will look to adults for clues on how to accept new situations. My daughter is only four and can still be convinced that almost any situation is cool so long as she feels secure. This meant that whenever we got emotional she would too, and it always meant it was happening at the worst time.
2. I underestimated the self-centered nature of a four year old. Her need for ‘Want Now” trumped all other situational facts including personal safety. I will never forget the temper tantrum she threw as she clung to the ladder, in 3-5 foot seas. She sort of swung back and forth like a growling, snotting metronome, deaf to my pleadings that she safely climb back down and sit safely on the settee. The fact that I had a rope in both hands, the helm by my teeth and Matt was out on deck struggling with the sail didn’t seem to matter to her. The need to stay in irons until he fixed the sail issue, which had us against the waves in an ugly roll didn’t seem to matter either. Four year olds do not instantly mature in the light of nautical necessity. Neither do 40 year olds by the way. (Actually my ensuing meltdown may have proven the opposite to be true.)
3. Birthdays or holidays on a boat are as fun and special as you plan them to be. Cadence turned four at anchorage on Cumberland Island. We curled her hair with bobby pins, had her first present be a princess outfit, decorated the boat while she slept, and had party hats on her stuffed animals to increase the party attendance. We also had properly decorated presents, and produced a yummy cake with candles. She had a great time. The surprise in the morning was the best. I waited until she slept and then I decorated the boat and wrapped the presents, (while seasick in a rolling anchorage. Do I get extra Mom Points for that?)
4. Seasickness at any age sucks. No sugar coating that. Do what needs to be done. Denial is a bad idea.
5. Cruising can be a great way to introduce super picky kids to new foods. It is amazing what the monotony of cruising food can do to picky kids. My own starting eating two new things, probably out of desperation.
6. Dolphins like children.
7. Mom doesn’t get any breaks until it is time for bed. Wait. What is new about that?
8. Cruising with kids is harder than cruising without, but life on land is harder with kids than without. So just go!
9. Children bring a special beauty and innocence to the experience. Any parent has the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of their child, and we were able to see cruising in the same way. This is something that is not to be missed!