A common reaction of parents on learning that my husband and I live on a boat with our three kids is a look of unabashed horror. “Is that safe?” My instinct is to scoff, “Of course not, you moron.” What idiot would think you could child-proof a boat? Clearly you face insurmountable obstacles. For example, the boat is surrounded by a many–bazillion-gallon swimming pool for which there is no cover. And even if you could find a cover large enough, you'd get in a lot of trouble if you carefully locked it down with a padlock when not in use.
A boat is full of sharp corners, accessible electrical connections, and poisonous liquids. It combines all the dangers of gallons of flammable fluids and megawatt deep cycle batteries with combustion engines, open flames, and cupboards that absolutely cannot be locked. Boats are no place for the faint of heart, children under the age of 60, or small pets. There is no question that any Child Protective Service agent worth her weight in salt would declare your boat hopelessly unsafe for children.
The good news is that there are no CPS agents on the open seas. You can simply float away and snicker, because the solution to child-proofing your boat is actually boat-proofing your child. You see, it is my opinion that a boat is in a lot more danger from your children than your children are from the boat. Boats are expensive, finicky, high performance machines on which every single object costs five times more than a reasonable person would expect.
Your boat is afraid of your children, and your pocketbook is afraid of your boat's frequent encounters with their creativity. Having said that, I do have a few practical tips to achieve a mutually assured destruction detentes between your children and your boat.
Throw Them Overboard – It's not a matter of if your child falls overboard, but when. All children who spend any time living on a boat fall overboard. Sometimes they do this on purpose. Sometimes it just happens. We know a child who fell overboard twice in one day. You might think this happens only to very young children. He was seven. Some children just can't grasp the basic concept that a boat moves, and it is not possible to travel in a straight line for any serious length of time without running out of boat.
It turns out that children fall off of docks, too. Maybe it's just easier to assume that children fall. Out of trees, off ramps, over the end of the pier, through hatches, down shore side cliffs, out of the rigging, and over the side of the dinghy. Gravity is stronger for children.
The solution is to teach them how to land. This is similar to the drop techniques taught special force troops in boot camp. If you know how to fall and spring back up again, falling becomes a strategy, rather than a mistake. We routinely throw our children off the side of the boat. When they go swimming, we encourage them to jump off the bow, slide down the transom, and slip off the side. It's a long way down from the deck of our catamaran. In a pinch, you don't want to be surprised by how long it takes you to hit the water.
Try to Drown Them – A corollary to throwing them off the boat is to make sure they can swim. Now most reasonable writers attempting to get published in the sailing trades will talk about life jackets. Whenever we visit with our Seattle Yacht Club friends, we spend a lot of time getting the kids in and out of life jackets to simply enable them to walk from the slip to the shore head.
But realistically, life jackets are horribly uncomfortable. They are worse for children, I think, because you can't buy them in the conveniently thin, self-inflatable tubes available for adults. Instead, you encase your children in a yellow and red straight jackets complete with hoodie. This makes them drift around the dock looking like brightly colored beach balls. As a result, you can scream, preach, bitch and yell all you want, but some day your child is going to slip outside the cockpit without her jacket. Like a cold war spy, she'll wait until you are distracted -- changing oil in the engine room or buried elbow deep in the head fixing the crapper -- and then she'll pop out on to the deck “for just a minute.”
Combine lesson one above (gravity is stronger for children) with Murphy's Law (anything that can go wrong, will...) and add MacGillicuddy's Corollary (...at the most inopportune time), and it is inevitable that your darling baby will end up in the drink. Without a life jacket. By herself.
Your best bet in this situation is a child who assumes that you as a parent are a strong proponent of
Lest you think I'm cruel, remember that it's not likely you will even know your child is in the water. They don't slip out without their life jackets when you are watching them from the helm. They do this only when they know you are preoccupied. So it's best if they know precisely how to fend for themselves.
Some guidelines for children and swimming:
- Your children can swim without touching bottom -- preferably with clothes on and for as a long as possible. By ten years of age, test them for a half hour with shorts and t-shirt on, no life jacket. Remember, if darling is somehow magically ejected from the boat without a life jacket while you’re underway, it's going to take you time to get back to him. If you don't have the patience or talent to teach your children yourself, enroll in classes at your local YMCA. Those folks are brilliant, and they never give up.
- Your children must be able to swim all the way around the boat. Don't assume a child will fall off conveniently near the swim ladder. No, if they are going to fall like Real Children, they will do so as far from easy egress from the water as possible.
- Whenever possible, drop your swim ladder. Keep it in the water at anchor and in the marina. Then put a very large sign next to the ignition switch that reads, “Raise the swim ladder!”
- Consider investing in marine dog ramps. If you haven't already visited PupGear at http://www.doggydocks.com/, now is the time. Let's be honest. The difference between children and dogs is a subtle one.
Give a Whistle – Okay, this goes against most of my parenting instincts, but I'm going to recommend that you make your children noisier. Horrifying thought though it might be, I recommend giving your children a dinghy whistle on a lanyard to wear on their wrists at all times. Let them pick out the color and even make or purchase the bracelet it goes on. When in doubt, they can always blow on this thing. Then read “The Little Boy that Cried Wolf” every night until they know the story by heart, including the author, copyright date and margin notes.