Cruising with Kids: Don't Leave the Dock Without Them!

Sailing wouldn't mean nearly as much to me if I couldn't share the joy that it brings me with my children.  In fact, when I sail with my kids, the two biggest joy-producers in my life collide to create my fondest memories.  I guess I'm lucky that my kids love sailing nearly as much as I do.  I've been told that a teenage day may come when they'd rather be somewhere other than harnessing the wind with dear old dad.  But until that day comes, you can bet I won't be leaving the dock without them.  Anyone else with kids knows that cruising and sailing takes a few special considerations to accomodate their needs.  What follows are my tips for cruising with kids on board.

Use jacklines, harnesses and tethers.  Safety is a major consideration whenever you sail with kids, but what exactly do you need to do differently?  If we're cruising, we typically have our jacklines installed on deck, even if the kids aren't with us.  But when they are with us, the rule on our boat is that the kids must wear harnesses and be tethered to the jacklines if they are on deck while we're underway.  Obviously, conditions must be calm for the kids to be allowed on deck in the first place.  Depending on your cockpit design and the conditions, you might also consider tethering your kids when they are in the cockpit.  A simple pad eye provides a good tether attachment.  There are multiple kid-friendly harness and tether systems available.  We use the Children's Safety Tether/Harness from Cal June.  This rig is lightweight and kid-sized.  It's not necessarily designed with offshore work in mind, but considering it's for kids it does the trick.

Notice the PFD's, jacklines, and tethers. Harnesses are hidden
beneath the PFD's. Lifeline netting is also visible.
Life Jackets/PFD's are a must.  This one almost goes without saying, given that the U.S. Coast Guard and most states actually require children of specific ages to wear life jackets at all times.  Even without local regulations and requirements, our kids wear life jackets whenever they are anywhere on the boat, except in the cabin.  This includes while docked or anchored.  Additionally, there are certain conditions where we require our kids to wear life jackets even while in the cabin.  During rough passages and when excessive heeling and/or tacking is expected, wearing a life jacket in the cabin can help protect ribs and shoulders from injury if they fall down.  We recommend letting your children help pick out their own personal life jacket so that it's comfortable and fashionable in their eyes, which helps ensure they'll have a better attitude about wearing them.  It's a net-positive if your kids want to wear their life jackets even if you have to endure the sight of Winnie the Pooh or Barbie on your otherwise classic and classy ketch.

Get kids involved.  Let them turn a halyard winch, or steer, or operate the GPS, or help with the dock lines.  The more they're involved with actually sailing the boat, the more they'll love and understand sailing.  Both of our daughters now instinctively know that it's their job to help secure dock lines when we return from a sail.  They also both can name most of the features on the boat (standing rigging, mainsail, mainsheet, tiller, shroud, spreader, etc.) and their purpose.

Learning how to stand watch at just 5 years old!
Lifeline netting.  Install some today.  While jacklines and tethers will keep your kids on board, netting adds another level of security and also helps keep other objects that invariably get dropped on deck (boat hooks, fenders, etc.) from falling off.  Another bonus: lifeline netting keeps dogs from falling overboard too!  Our netting isn't the fancy cargo-net style you can buy at West Marine, but rather just some simple thin cordage laced between the lifelines and toerail (see the first picture in this post).   

Give them their own "corner" of the boat.  Just like at home, kids need a space on the boat that they can call their own and set up to their liking.  Our kids use this policy liberally and often commandeer the entire cabin while we're out sailing.  It's not uncommon to see stuffed animals, Polly Pockets and coloring books strewn from the chain locker in the vee berth clear back to the aft quarter berth.  Maybe we need to tighten up the boundaries on their personal boat space, but you get the idea.

You can tell these two don't like cruising at all.
Instilling a love and respect in my children for sailing is important to me.  Being safe, having fun, and having responsibilities are all part of the equation.  If I play my parental cards right and at least one of the little buggers ends up with my sailing addiction, perhaps one day when their dad (me) is too old to sail and is considering a trawler, they'll have a nice Oyster 54 I can hitchhike aboard.


  1. Nice thoughts! We're just now embarking on this adventure process of sailing with our five daughters. We don't have a boat or money or anything right now, but we're getting started on the process for when that day finally arrives. I look forward to reading more. (I reposted your article on my Blog, giving you credit and linking back to you, of course!) CHEERS!

  2. Anonymous15 November

    Sounds great about the jacklines We can use those to tether our infant car seat to something, not sure yet but will figure it out once on the boat in Dec. We are taking our first cruising trip with our 3 month old so if anyone has sailing with infants tips or tricks, things to bring along for the trip I would appreciate them. We are chartering so will need to bring our own specialzied gadgets.

    1. Be sure to leave the handle in the up position on the infant car seat so it will act as a roll bar if it tips. The "Johnny Jump Up" style bungee seats are great for time at anchor or the dock. We've also been able to use a "Pack n' Play" in the v-berth as a means of keeping the baby safe and secure while sleeping. Good luck with your cruise!

  3. I know I'm commenting on an old post but I wanted to send you quick question to follow up. We just bought our first sailboat and are now trying to figure out all the necessary safety equipment for our 2 and 4 year old daughters. It seems most of the harnesses have D-rings in the front which if worn under a PFD would be rather uncomfortable, especially with the tether attached. How do you set up the harness and PFD combo so it is most comfortable and effective for your children? Thanks.

    1. Great question! The d-ring on the harness we have is located in the middle of the chest, which as you've noticed, is difficult for attachment (and potentially uncomfortable) when a PFD is in place. However, we unzip the PDF about 3 inches down, which exposes the d-ring and allows easy attachment. We have also tried running the tether down under the PFD so it exits at the bottom. This means the child would dangle upside down if they fell overboard, but we have the tethers short enough that they can't actually go overboard at all, so it works too. Other options may be to find PFD's with a d-ring (not sure the exist for children) or attach the tether to the webbing of the PDF, assuming it's strong enough to support a child's weight.

  4. Great tips/ideas. I was bit confused about the activities to do with kids on a cruise trip but now I am happy that I found your blog. Thanks alot for sharing.

  5. Hello! My husband and I had a sailboat years ago, before kids. We are now preparing for our whole family to go sailing once again this summer. We have a 2, 5, and 8 year old. Since we no longer own a sailboat, I would like to find the jacklines and harnesses at a great discount! Do you know of any sailing gear resale sites? Thank you!

    1. Hi Aubrey. Other than the usual suspects (Craigslist, Ebay), I don't have any great suggestions for finding discounted jacklines/harnesses. However, it might be worth posting to the forums at or to see if anyone has some available or has other ideas. Another option I've seen a couple of people use is Dyneema line to make jacklines. It's super strong and can be had in smaller diameters for less than $0.50 per foot. It obviously doesn't lay flat like polyester webbing, but it is more economical.


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