Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Aren't You Worried about Them Falling Overboard?" Real and Imagined Fears of Living Aboard with Three Toddlers

We live on a 44 foot sail boat with our three toddlers age four and under. Considering this living arrangement falls well outside the range of "normal" for most land-dwelling folks, we get a lot of questions. But no question do we field so much as: "Aren't you afraid of them falling overboard?!" While, yes, the fact that we are surrounded by water combined with the reality that not one of our three children can swim unaided yet falls in the "Big F***ing Deal" category, you might be surprised to learn that, no, we almost never worry about them falling off the boat.

(insert sound of record scratching)

Don't get me wrong, our kids going overboard is our greatest concern and, potentially, our worst nightmare. But "worry" about it? No. So...why? A few reasons, really: 1) They are constantly supervised by an adult when they are on deck, not to mention well contained by protective netting around our boat's perimeter and 2) the water is warm and clear here so if they did happen to fall in, particularly because they are always under close watch, one of us would be able to retrieve them in a matter of seconds. Would we worry about this more if we were living in the Arctic where you have only moments in the water before hypothermia sets in, or if we lived somewhere where water was brackish and murky? Probably. But here? Not so much. And finally, 3) our girls have grown up on and around boats. It's natural and normal to them. They know how to move and maneuver like little pros, and furthermore know the "rules" and don't climb the lifelines or venture to the 'off limits' area of our boat. We are very frank with our daughters and mince no words when it comes to their understanding of safety. We tell it like it is: "If you fall in the water, you will sink like a stone to the bottom of the ocean." Sure, that might sound a little harsh, but a healthy dose of fear has a very real place in this particular scenario. We don't worry about them falling overboard at anchor any more than we would worry about our boat suddenly springing a leak. Sure, it's possible. But it certainly doesn't keep us up at night.

Underway it's similar. Our girls are never more than four feet from a parent, usually in the cockpit with Scott and I, and always in their lifejackets. We are lucky to live in a cruising area where we don't see big seas or rough weather, and if weather is inclement you won't find us sailing. On nice days, I often venture on deck with the girls to have dance parties during a smooth passage and they love to be on in the open air, watching the water for dolphins and turtles and waving hello at other boats. While we still allow them a little freedom to explore, the rules are a more stringent underway because man overboard drills in even the most pleasant conditions can be challenging, particularly if you're retrieving a small child (if a child were to go in, I'd immediately jump in after her and Scott would bring the boat back, fyi). I have zero interest in ever experiencing this horror, so our #1 rule is to stay on the boat. Period. We don't climb the rigging. We don't run. If it's rough we do not leave the cockpit and no one is allowed on deck without a parent present. Our girls understand that they must maneuver carefully and use one hand for the boat and one hand for themselves while the boat is underway. If we move between the bow of the boat and the cockpit I usually walk with them while the other two are seated securely on deck holding on to hand rails. "Always hold on," I remind them sternly. "You must always be holding on to the boat when we are moving." And they do. We are cautious, calculated and careful, but worried about them going overboard? Not really.

So where do we get a little fearful? Where does worry come into play?

Three words: At the dock.

A dock gives off false security and makes many of us feel okay because - hey, it's a dock! It's stable and safe and people and boats are around! But, no. All it would take is for one child to get out of my view and run off (it doesn't take long, believe me) and the repercussions could be disastrous. Keeping tabs on three (very active and curious) children is not always easy. While the marina does provide some security in that we have a whole community of people who watch after our girls from afar and more than once I have had a friend help me capture a runaway child, it's more of a perk and not something I count on. I am cautious and constantly doing the 'head count' if they are walking free (I am not to the point of leashes yet, but holy crap I'm close!) There are serious hazards on docks; a child might trip over a hose, a cleat or a line and fall in unnoticed, might try to balance or climb up a piling and slip over. She might see something in the water and try to reach it and topple in. Or maybe try to board a boat and misjudge the step. Any of these situations could be compounded by a good knock on the head during a tumble, rendering her unconscious and in the water... I could go on and on with scenarios but the bottom line is: these are potentially life and death situations. These are things we don't mess around with. These are the thoughts that, if I let them, keep me awake at night.

Because of these very real dangers, we have a strict lifejacket rule when on the dock and unless our girls are attached to our person or in their stroller , they are (almost always) in life jackets when walking around. Because they are so used to the rule, they often put them on themselves and with little protest. It's normal and understood. Other marina rules? They are never allowed to get on or off a boat without adult help or supervision. If we want to look at something in the water, we lie on our bellies to do so (it's much harder to fall head first into the water from a laying position than from a kneeling one). When running we keep a healthy distance from the edge so a normal trip doesn't turn into a swim. These rules were drilled into my head like "please" and "thank you" when I was a cruising kid and I've passed them onto our children. With these few safety measures in place, we certainly feel better, but I'd be lying if I said there was zero worry. It's amplified because I am chasing around three kids, usually by myself, two of whom are twins with a penchant for running in opposite directions just to mess with me - so I am always on high alert. When they run around with their lifejackets on? I worry less. WAY less. In fact, I'm pretty laid back about their wanderings as long as I can see them and know they will float. "Oh, they're so close to the water!" someone will tell me with concern in their voice, "Aren't you afraid they'll fall in?" they ask. "If they do," I start, "They will float and they certainly won't do it again!" The onlookers don't typically share my cavalier attitude and laugh nervously as they pass. But my thinking is this: worst case scenario, one of my girls falls in and gets a good scare. I fish them out (no doubt in front of a large gasping audience whispering #momoftheyear), give them a cuddle and we carry on with our day after a good rinse and change of clothes. Of course I don't want this to happen, but I'm all about kids exploring and learning natural consequences as long as the consequences aren't dire. If my girls are wearing life jackets, my worry is almost nil. Almost.


We take the safety of our children very, very seriously and I'm doing risk analysis while watching my kids play a hundred times a day. Bad things can happen. Accidents happen. We know that. Risks are everywhere on both land and sea. We do not, however, let a fear of "what if" rule our life. If that was the attitude we maintained, we'd never have left on a sailboat in the first place. For the most part, we let our kids be kids and give them a long leash to explore their capabilities and the world around them. Our girls climb up our mast and hang out on the boom. They swing from trees with ropes. They scale walls, climb like monkeys and run with hopeless abandon. Sure, they have the bumps, scrapes and bruises to prove it, but it's pure fact that humans learn by doing and so - with some simple rules in place and supervision from afar - we let them do. Our parenting style is to teach rather than dissuade, to empower rather than frighten. We do this, in part, by managing our own worry. Our goal - like most parents - is to raise happy, independent, confident children who trust the power of their bodies and minds, and who have a healthy respect for - but are not afraid of - the world around them. So, sure, like every parent - we worry. We worry about a million things like their happiness, health and success in life...But we don't really worry about them falling off the boat.

Sailing; in lifejackets (always) and one hand for the boat, one hand for themselves.
Always on our bellies to look at the water (Thank you Cindy W. for this tip!!)
When we're dock walkin', we are wearing life jackets. (and going opposite ways)

Practicing climbing, problem-solving, and balance. 
Looking out over the water, our fender was on the deck but usually they are never leaning over life lines.
I rigged up a line from the mast to the bow and it provided a TON of entertainment.  
When sailing on a nice day, this is how you will usually find the girls and I. 


Unknown said...

You certainly sound like you have everything under control. The issue of safety can honestly be the same regardless of where you are raising the children. I love the idea of laying on the tummy on the docks. Having had kiddies fall in the pool I can totally respect that. You are raising amazing agile kiddies and they will be fine. Enjoy the crazy awesome toddling twins and glorious big sister. These are truly the best years of your lives. Xo Colleen Charlton

Unknown said...

You certainly sound like you have everything under control. The issue of safety can honestly be the same regardless of where you are raising the children. I love the idea of laying on the tummy on the docks. Having had kiddies fall in the pool I can totally respect that. You are raising amazing agile kiddies and they will be fine. Enjoy the crazy awesome toddling twins and glorious big sister. These are truly the best years of your lives. Xo Colleen Charlton

Mike G said...

We enrolled all 3 of our kids in and what a huge reduction in the stress factor knowing they could fall into any body of water and "hang out" until help arrives.

Shore To Chic said...

Awesome article! :-) I love your blog! :-)

Leeward said...

So awesome. We have 3 daughters all under the age of 8 and they have been sailing with us since infancy (and before really). Spot on -- most accidents occur while docking, boarding, offboarding, etc. We feel safest when we are clear of structure of nearly any kind. Keep on keepin' on!

Cookie Cookbook said...

Grateeful for sharing this

Donna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna said...

Living aboard with three toddlers is a thrilling yet nerve-wracking experience. Amidst the laughter and chaos, the question often arises. Real and imagined fears intertwine as every creak of the deck invokes visions of disaster. Safety precautions become second nature, yet the mind can't help but wander to worst-case scenarios. azzalure a wrinkle-reducing injectable, may smooth out worry lines, but the true remedy lies in vigilance and a deep-seated love that anchors the family together amidst the rolling waves.

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