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Boating Safety with Kids

by Laurie Lowther - YachtShare NZ Ltd on 17 Feb 2008
Boating is a priviledge with children, and should be safe and fun. YachtShare
Every parent's concern when boating is the safety of their child at sea.

When we at YachtShare are approached by potential clients with children, we have a lot to discuss to allay their fears and to ensure the client has enough practical knowledge to assume command with children on-board.

Boating is an exciting and fun family leisure option and by educating away some of the risks, parents can relax and the whole family will gain more from the experience.

Toddlers and Babies

Babies on boats are easy… they don’t move, so strap them into their car seat and bring them along for the ride... you’ll often find that the motion of the boat will induce them into a nice peaceful sleep. Lifejackets for infants are readily available, and these can also be hired from Coastguard, together with specially designed baby life capsules.

Toddlers are the biggest challenge on a boat as they’re not of an age to accept instructions and just want to move and explore all day. This is where a safety harness with tether becomes very useful. Controlled freedom is what it’s all about, so clip them to a secure point near the helm via the tether and they can wander in a 2.5mtr radius to their hearts content.

Keep all small children away from the companion way… yep they love to climb/ stand on stairs, but this surely is one of the most dangerous areas on the boat in a seaway. Even sitting near the open companionway could cause a child to be bounced backwards down the open gap, and is an area that should be closely monitored.


Lifejackets should be worn by children on board a boat at all times ... no excuses. The reasoning is that children are far more susceptible to being bounced off a boat during an errant wave, have lesser appreciation of hazards on the boat such as booms, stairs, moving ropes and lines and often less sure footing.

The lifejacket must be of a proper fit and buoyancy rating for the weight of the child and the specifications printed on the jacket should be carefully checked by the adult.

There are different types of ‘lifejacket’, ranging from lifevests and buoyancy aids to full lifejackets. Ideally the full lifejacket is the one to choose as this has a neck support to hold the child’s head above the water.

Inflatable Lifejackets are great options as they are very comfortable particularly for the smaller child and will not irritate them hence they will be less reluctant to wear them.

Go for the automatic inflation model so that the rip cord does not have to be pulled upon immersion.

Lifejacket Practice

25 Second Lifejackets

Run a 25 second lifejacket drill. When the skipper yells ‘Lifejackets’ everyone on board should appear on deck with their lifejacket on and a designated crew member also carries the grab bag of safety gear. Practise this with the family until it’s completed within 25 seconds … no longer.

Does it float?

Your children need to experience jumping into the water with their lifejacket on. As well as being a great advance check of the suitability of the jacket, it is essential that the children have confidence in the flotation of their jacket to reduce the possibility of panic in an emergency… find that nice warm bay and jump off the stern fully kitted up … get them used to swimming around in the jacket so that they learn the effect of the extra buoyancy on their body.

Show your children how to hold the jacket by pulling down gently on the collar while they jump. A fun but valuable practice is to jump in fully clothed with the jacket … your children will not necessarily be in their togs in an emergency and different clothing can affect their flotation.

These practices can be a fun game for children, making them better prepared in an emergency and give parents confidence in the effectiveness of safety measures.

Family as Crew

Engage your family as much as possible in the operation of the boat. More experience and knowledge does lead to less danger. Kids should be shown and encouraged to start/stop the engine, use the manual winches, switch items on the electrical panel on an off, operate the anchor control and trim the sails.

No Go Areas

Every boat should have no go areas… the bow on a motor launch during movement, the area forward of the cockpit on a yacht. Certainly with my own children we have a policy on the yacht of no child forward of the cockpit unless specifically allowed by the skipper.

This saves the risk of head/boom collisions and ensures easy monitoring of the family from the helm.

We also have a policy of not asking the children to perform any tasks forward of the cockpit whilst underway. Consider your no-go areas and enforce them strictly.

Running on the pier

One of the more dangerous areas of boating is the pier… children just love running up and down and exploring. ‘Walk’ is a word they don’t always hear … Ok… but wear your lifejacket on the pier.

The pier is lined with many hazards such as cleats, ropes, hoses and joints.

If a child trips or falls from the pier, there are so many boats in the marina, it’s hard to locate a drifting child and also very easy for them to drift underneath the pier or get jammed between boats.

Climbing out is almost impossible on their own unless they climb via a boarding ladder of a moored boat.

Every Boatie’s stress point

Berthing the boat back into the marina successfully is the biggest stress point for most boaties. Have a firm rule that all children are sitting safely down below and quiet. The skipper cannot afford any distractions at this time and children squishing fingers between boat and pole is not a pretty sight or sound.

Oops who forgot the oars!

Children just love the inflatables and dinghies, and the outboard engine is a huge attraction for the boys. Ensure you teach safe practices and firstly... can they row and are the oars permanently in the inflatable? Insist on life jackets being worn. Monitor the weather and currents. Little arms rowing have a hard time getting back to safety against a strong wind or current. Set boundaries, eg only between the boat and the beach.

One of the bigger danger areas, especially for older children using the outboard, is the danger to swimmers. Ensure your children keep well away from any swimmers, both off the beach and off other boats. Teach them to keep a good look out and to keep their speed down, and to adhere to set boundaries. And, as always, supervision is essential. Little ones can join in the fun too and gain huge satisfaction at mastering rowing, but ensure they are well supervised and remember they can enjoy some measure of independence at the end of a rope.

Who knows how to get home?

Boating with only your child and yourself on board is a significant risk should you the skipper become incapacitated or fall over board. Make sure your child has rudimentary skills in VHF radio usage, with Coastguard and emergency channel knowledge, electrical switchboard functions, chartplotter position reading and engine start/stop.

Boating is a privilege with children. The quiet family time, the appreciation of nature, the skills and knowledge learned are all invaluable. As with everything there are risks involved, but with sensible safety measures, boating is family life as it should be … safe, fun and most of all … together.

Have a safe and happy family boating season this summer from the team at YachtShare NZ

Bakewell-White Yacht DesignAncasta Ker 40+ 660x82InSunSport - NZ

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