A Guy Raising Kids At Sea Explains How To Go Boating With Kids

Tip #4: Choose your descriptions carefully, and they'll actually look forward to bad weather.

by Michael Howard
Originally Published: 
boating with kids

James Burwick raised 3 kids — 6, 4, and 2 — during a 26,000 mile ocean expedition over the past four years without killing even one of them, and his biggest piece of advice to parents of prospective sailors and fishermen is this: Before they ever learn the difference between port and starboard, they better be comfortable with the idea of boarding a glorified slab of wood and setting off into the wild blue yonder.

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Burwick has lived on a 40-foot sailboat with his wife and kids since 2011. Their oldest daughter visited 28 countries before entering the first grade, and his 2-year-old is perfectly comfortable climbing into a kayak and paddling around by herself. Needless to say, he knows how to get kids excited about being on the water: “I don’t tell them anything. I just tie them in and wait until they ask.”

Here are few more specific bits of advice …

Teach Kids To Love The Water

“Teach them to swim first,” he says. “If the child’s scared of the water, then sailing’s not really a good idea.” See? The guy’s not just a captain of the high seas; he’s a captain of the obvious.

Burwick isn’t one for organized swimming lessons because the best form of teaching is just you and your kids having fun in the pool. “Keep them in their comfort zone until they’re ready for more,” Burwick says. “Don’t push them. Don’t try to get them to jump [in]. Don’t try to get them to dive. Parents do that all the time with their kids. They think they have to get over this fear thing.”

Killer seas are “scary?” No, big waves are “fast,” and speed is “fun.”

Show them water is something to enjoy, not a fear to overcome, and you won’t have to coax them into a boat — they’ll hop in on their own.

Make Boat Safety Cool

Nothing is lamer than a personal flotation device that looks like an oversized circus peanut strangling your kid, and nothing is less safe than being on a boat without a PFD. Burwick has simple solution to this problem: “You can make it cool. Get one that fits and buy an expensive one.”

Burwick’s kids are all attuned to the concept of the “action suit,” which is the safety-specific gear required for whatever activity he’s getting them up for. Biking, skiing, mountain climbing, whatever — when it’s go time, the kids suit up. For sailing, he’s a big fan of Peltz harnesses, West Marine toddler harnesses, and Baltic lifejackets. “[Baltic’s] are really pretty radical. They have a built-in harness you clip in, and the kids love them,” he says. The most common time to fall in the water is entering and exiting the boat, so be sure and slap that PFD on them at the docks.

Telling your kids “safety’s cool!” sound ridiculous. Rebrand it as the mantra of experts and badasses like Burwick instead of corny mascots, and your kids will consider precaution a hallmark of the pros.

Teach The “Real Rules” of Boating

Burwick was a mountain guide for 32 years, which taught him plenty about translating risk to people with limited experience. If breaking it can result in death, he calls it a “real rule.”

There’s a saying in his family: “Make the clip or take the ride.” Burwick says of his kids, “What they learn sailing offshore is that if you don’t obey the rules you’re going to die. If you don’t clip in your harness [to the tether] and you fall off the boat when it’s going 15 knots, we’re never going to get you. My kids know that’s real because we throw things in the water and try to come around and get them.” Retrieving a life ring in calm conditions is cumbersome. Retrieving a flailing toddler in 15-meter seas is nearly impossible.

He’s found that man overboard drills and catchy slogans work. “Learning something because it’s essential comes a lot easier for my children than learning something that’s esoteric.”

Watch Your Language

Killer seas are “scary?” No, big waves are “fast,” and speed is “fun.” From the get-go, present ocean situations with verbiage that inspires excitement, not fear. The Burwick family doesn’t say “big storm;” they say “wind pressure.”

“Just praise them when they’re doing it right and don’t really talk about the negatives.”

The result: “Giant seas 16-18 meters come up into the boat and the kids are all excited because squid is on the boat, and we go out and get the squid. And we chop them and put them in the Ramen noodles. They look forward to it. It’s about perception.” Sometimes they sit in his lap to help steer multiple cuts down the face of a single massive wave. Note the word “steer,” not “hold on for dear life.”

Teach Your Kid As You Would A Dog

Once kids are ready to start actually learning how to sail or fish or do something beyond not being terrified on a boat, Burwick falls back on something he learned training search and rescue dogs: “In negative situations you just steer the puppy away,” he says. The same thing works with kids: “Just praise them when they’re doing it right and don’t really talk about the negatives.”

An important thing to remember is that what you teach your kids is actually less important than how much they do it. “Education at a young level is maybe 1 percent instruction and 99 percent practice,” he says. More importantly, as his wife, photographer Somira Sao told the Adventure Journal, “It’s supposed to be fun, not frustrating. No matter what the activity is with the kids, if we make any progress at all, we’re happy. Celebrate the victories, no matter how small.”

Photography provided by Somira Sao.

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