Monday, May 23, 2016

10 Boat Features we Find Useful for the Baby on Board

Boating and babies go together better than you might imagine, however, there are a few concessions one must make in order for the transition to be a smooth one. The boat you choose is a big one. The vessel you select for your journey – it’s pedigree, age, performance and features – can and will hugely impact your experience and enjoyment. This rule applies whether or not you have kids on board. There are certain traits, however, that really seem to suit the “baby on board” moniker. After three kids and over four years of boating with babies and/or toddlers we have compiled a list of ten boat characteristics that make life afloat with little ones easier. If you are like me, anything that makes the already hard job of parenting less of a crazy train is worth noting, so take heed. These things might not be “essential” but will almost certainly impact the frustrating vs. fun factor. 

Plenty of cabins/bunks

We wish SO BADLY we had a third cabin, it’s insane. We will most certainly be upgrading to a new boat in the next couple years and you had better believe our next boat will have a third cabin. The twins currently share our v-berth, but Isla sleeps in a make shift bunk bed we made in our walk-thru. She loves it and it works great for her…now. It’s definitely got an expiration date as it’s smaller than a toddler bed and children have this uncanny ability to grow non-stop, not to mention the fact that her placement in the “main cabin” of our boat greatly inhibits our life after she goes to bed. We cannot cook, watch movies, or hang out in our salon once it’s ‘lights out’ for her. Not the biggest deal to befall a boater, but something to seriously consider when boat shopping.
sailing with babies

Plenty of water tankage

We used to be really conservative about our water use aboard when we cruised as a couple. We carried 60 gallons and had a 5 gallon per hour water maker that we’d run for a few hours once a week. We were so good and ecological! Now? We’re all “Who built the Ark? Let’s fill up that baby pool on the aft deck so the kids will play quietly for twenty minutes!” Luckily, when we were actively cruising with our eldest, we foresaw the need (or desire?) for more water and outfitted our boat with a high-output Cruise RO water maker. We sang it praise almost every day. Babies are messy. REALLY Being able to hose them off after the beach, the pool, or after they smear pasta sauce and/or god knows what else all over their adorable pudgy bodies really makes life easier. Not to mention the ability to do laundry regularly. We regularly rinse our boat, our clothes, ourselves and our kids and – believe me – life is better because of it!
sailing with babies

Ability to be singlehanded

This is a biggie for the baby boat because human babies are pretty damn dependent for the first couple years of life. We learned very quickly that once we had our first child, one person needed to be on boat duty, while the other was on baby duty. When sailing overnight, we both assumed watch schedules while Isla slept, but most of the time, mommy tended to all things baby, while daddy sailed the boat. Of course we both could do the other’s job (to a point, Scott couldn’t nurse the babies) but we found this arrangement worked well for us.

Center cockpit

There are those that love center cockpit boats, and those that don’t. We stand firmly and proudly in the first camp. A center cockpit is great for a ‘baby boat’ for so many reasons. For one, it provides a nice 360 degree buffer between the water and the child, which is always a nice bonus when it comes to a baby on a boat. It also allows for an aft cabin, which makes for a great en-suite master bedroom and a little separation from the front of the boat and kids. And finally the center cockpit layout provides an aft-deck which makes a great place to load and unload provisions, store beach gear an other miscellaneous effects, and makes for an ideal area to hose off and/or shower after a day at the beach.
sailing with babies

Swim platform

This makes getting in and out of the dinghy with babies tremendously easier. Having a nice, secure step or platform between the boat and the dinghy is great for doing the (sometimes precarious) baby-to-boat handoff. And if you ever find yourself solo parenting as I do? The step is almost a necessity! We will never own a boat without one of these!

One level interior

Having an interior with as few “levels” as possible is nice because, trust me, your baby will fall down those naughty little steps all. the. time. before they figure out how to climb up or down them. Granted, this window of time is super short so if you have a few steps (and I’m not talking about the companionway steps) fear not…but if you have the choice, a boat with a level interior will guarantee you hear fewer blood curdling screams from a tot that just took a tumble, not to mention give a little more surface to practice crawling or walking. Don’t get me wrong, your boat baby will take a ton of tumbles regardless – but if you want less, find a boat with less steps.
sailing with babies

Vinyl cushions

Never in a million years would I have outfitted a boat with white vinyl cushions, but holy heck am I glad webought a boat with them. I cannot even IMAGINE what our cushions would look like if they were regular interior fabric because the amount of food, sauce, paint, marker, crayon, pen, playdoh, juice and you don’t even want to know what else I have wiped off is INSANE. Three toddlers are messy. Period. Our cushions not only clean up like a breeze, but make me more laid back about messes (and making them! which, mind you, goes against my very tidy nature but is great for kids) because, “It’s cool, kids! Don’t sweat that spilled paint! Look, we just wipe it right up!” I mean, I wash our cushions using the same spray cleaner I use for the counters. It. is. awesome. Would not want a baby boat without them.
sailing with babies

Extra storage

We are definitely not minimalists, but we do try to limit what we bring on board. Even still, three kids equal a ton of crap. From booster chairs to books, from crafting supplies to clothes, from beach toys to building blocks – you will need a good place to keep it all. The more storage, the better. And if you can be well organized about it, even better. Organization on a boat is like golf, never mastered and a constant work in progress.

Two heads

This is one of the bonuses of a center cockpit boat. And whether or not you *think* you need an extra head they are sure nice to have because – ***spoiler alert*** – heads break down and people sometimes have to go “potty” at the same time. Toddlers, fyi, aren’t always great at holding it either and men, well…men tend to take their time. We love having two heads aboard and with a family of five, we’ve sung our extra head praise more than once, let me tell you!
sailing with babies

Aft deck shower

Salt water and sand do not belong in the boat. They are a major pain in the butt if they infiltrate the interior so your mission, should you chose to accept it – is to keep it out. The best way to do this, short of avoiding beaches and salt water all together (not advisable!) is to do a fresh water rinse immediately when you return to the boat. Note that this favorable feature combines line items #2 (water tankage) and #4 (center cockpit). Being able to rinse off completely before we ever set foot in our cockpit is wonderful and definitely keeps salt and sand at bay. We keep a little bin full of our wash soap and shampoo on the aft deck and usually rinse off at least once, sometimes two or three times a day depending on our excursions.
sailing with babies
So there you have the ten features we have found hugely beneficial to a boat with babies on board. It obviously goes without saying that these are things that we have found helpful and you might very have a different experience. We’ve seen families with children cruising on the most luxurious of catamarans with every gadget under the sun and we’ve seen families of five living aboard a simple thirty-two footer with as few systems as possible. It’s also worth noting that the baby and toddler stages of life are quick and fleeting, so whether or not your boat truly suits the baby stage might not be that important for you. Many of these features, however, will be enjoyed well past babyhood so keep that in mind. Either way, making sure you find a boat that works well for you and your family is the most important thing, so chose wisely. Fair winds!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Teaching a Toddler How to Swim: What Is Working for Us

"Wow, you're kids must be great swimmers!" We hear this a lot from people when they meet us and learn that we live on a sailboat with our young children. While our girls are only aged two and four - very respectable ages to remain reliant on floatation devices, mind you - in the live-aboard/cruising world, many children are skilled swimmers by these ages. Ours, however, were not. I was embarrassed to admit that, "No, none of our girls swim actually..."feeling a little pang of parental shame and longing for the day my girls could swim freely like many of their boat and island dwelling peers. Regardless, I knew not to push or force the issue, to let things happen on their own time and remained patient and vigilant about exposing them to swimming children and plenty of time in the water.

A few weeks ago I made the acquaintance of the lovely "Grannie Annie" who is something of a legend here on Tortola (her husband started the infamous Willy T floating bar over at Norman Island). She moved here in 1957 and has been a swim instructor for over 40 years, instructing hundreds and hundreds of children how to swim during her illustrious career.  Her entire family - right down to the grandkids - are lovely and they give back to the community in big ways. She oozes patience and kindness and is the kind of soul you are happy to know. Immediately drawn to her, we started talking and she said she'd love to help teach our girls to swim once a week when time and weather permitted. I was thrilled.

So far, we have had ONE lesson with the lovely Annie and I am super proud to say, we now have a swimmer! And once things clicked, it happened fast (we laid some good ground work, for sure). There are steps we took that expedited things, and I am going to share what we did and what worked for us (because I now wished we'd done some of them earlier). Keep in mind, I am not a child swim instructor and have zero professional knowledge on this subject. It's personal, not professional, experience. I share what we have done and learned (some of which came from Grannie Annie, who *is* a professional), simply to tell you what worked for us, and what might work for you. I realize there are many different methods and schools of thought regarding teaching kids to swim, so these may or may not jive with you. If you happen to be a professional swim instructor and have other tips to add, I welcome them! Please add in the comments so we all can learn. As with anything regarding children, use your own discretion and do your own research if you have questions.
Isla's first lesson with Annie, she started with a small back float and lost it within the hour.
Teaching a Toddler to Swim, Tricks that Have Worked For Us:
  1.  Don't force it. Forcing kids to do things (like eat veggies, potty train, and wear the cute outfit grandma got them) usually doesn't bode well for anyone. As much as I'd loved to have had Isla swimming by age two, she simply was not interested. She loved the water, but hated (and I mean hated) getting her hair and face wet. We were patient and let her get comfortable very slowly. Bath time helped a lot with this, but she was still what I would call a "slow adopter". Every child is different. The twins, on the other hand, have no issue getting their heads and faces wet, blowing bubbles and going underwater, so they are much further ahead at age two than Isla was at their age. We concentrate as much as possible on having fun in the water and not making it torture. 
  2.  Expose them to water as much - and as early - as possible. This is also a no-brainer, but a child who is never around water is probably not going to be super comfortable in it. Practice makes perfect. We are very lucky to live in a marina with a gorgeous pool that we can use freely, and we bring our girls there at least four times a week to swim and play. Don't have a pool? No problem. You can get over a lot of swimming hurdles (like getting hair and face wet, learning to blow bubbles, floating on tummy, etc) in a backyard baby pool or even a bathtub. 
    Watering cans and water toys in a tub can go a long way in getting kids comfortable in the water
  3. Start them with simple tricks. As mentioned above, starting early with things like: getting your child comfortable getting his or her head and face wet (you can use a small cup, or one of those cups with holes in the bottom to create a shower effect), teaching them how to blow bubbles in the water, showing your child how to wipe water out of their eyes, and practicing the proper kicking position either using a pool noodle, floaties or a kickboard can go a long way in garnering the skills that lead to swimming. These little tricks will lay some solid groundwork to help set up your child for swimming success when they start lessons (either with you or an official program). Start simple and don't forget to make it FUN!
  4. Get them a mask, goggles and/or a snorkel. When Isla was still in her puddle jumper, the introduction of a mask and snorkel really kick-started her efforts to learn to swim. The mask got her so much more excited about swimming, not to mention it naturally put her in the correct position in the water (prone on tummy, not straight up and down like so many children instinctively do when first starting). The mask and snorkel also greatly improved her kicking motion from the ineffective "bicycle" kick to the proper swim kick. We use these Aqua Sphere goggles for our girls, which are great for swimming. And we have this mask and snorkel set for Isla, which she loves and actually prefers over goggles. 
    The snorkel was a HUGE hit with Isla and she snorkeled months before she swam
  5. Expose them to other kids swimming. There is no greater way to get a kid excited about doing something than to show him or her a friend or peer that is doing that same thing. When Isla would see her friends swimming in the pool without floatation aids, she would run up and ask when she could swim without them. Sometimes, a little peer pressure is a good thing. The fact that big sister is swimming now has Haven hot on her tail.
  6. Start with puddle jumpers. I know that using floatation devices is frowned upon by many swim instructors, but for me - bringing three toddlers to the pool by myself would be impossible without them. These Puddle Jumpers really gave my girls confidence in the water and gave me some serious peace of mind.  Our girls love swimming in them and the freedom and independence they allow. While they are rated for 30-50 lbs, we actually had the twins swimming in these much earlier, about sixteen months and just made sure to keep a close eye so no little arms slipped out. These are also Coast Guard Certified as child floatation devices so they can double as life vests on the dock or during dinghy ride if need be (we still use a proper life vest when sailing). Keep in mind, having these floaties on your children doesn't mean you can leave your kids unattended (one arm out of the sling and they will no longer float properly), but you can relax a little more knowing your kids will swim easily and comfortably wearing these.
  7. Move onto a progressive back float. We had some cruising friends visit us at the marina and their two (adorable) kids were the same ages as ours. Both their kids, however, could swim. "How?!" I asked, desperate. Hermione presented me with a progressive back float with four foam boards on it. The idea behind the float is three fold: 1) The kids must work to use them (do NOT take your eyes off the kids as this is a swim aid, NOT a floatation device) 2) They teach proper swimming positioning (on belly, not straight up and down) and 3) You can remove the foam boards one by one as your child gains confidence in the water. I ordered this brand and within two days Isla went from four floats to two. Haven, who started with four two weeks ago, is currently swimming two and well on her way to swimming unaided. Mira, our little 'lazy river' swimmer is happy as a clam to just float in the water in her puddle jumper still, and we're totally okay with that.
    Very proud of going from four floats to two. It was super easy and painless.
  8. Add fins. This right here is the piece de resistance and we have Grannie Annie to thank for it. Never in a million years would I have thought to put my toddler in fins to help her swim, but Annie told me that they instinctively teach kids to kick properly (and not simply bicycle) in the water. I was apprehensive, but trusted her implicitly. Within one hour of wearing the fins and getting used to them, Isla was confidently swimming without a float. It was amazing. She is still using the fins, mind you, which in and of themselves are a form of assistance I guess, but she is swimming properly, with good form and gaining more and more confidence every day. Soon enough we will lose the fins, just as we have every other device - but for now, these were the magic bullet that made the most dramatic improvement. Granny Annie got Isla's fins from K-Mart in St. Thomas, but if I were to buy a pair I'd go for these well-reputed toddler fins.
  9. Teach them to "zoom". Annie taught me this trick. What you do is hold your child under their arms alongside you near a wall or the stairs, somewhere they are comfortable and can easily stand or hold on, step a few feet away, and then "zoom" them - essentially glide by pushing through the water - back to where they can stand. This is how we got Isla swimming on her own. After three or four "zooms", she was good to go. The gliding feeling gave her the proper swimming sensation, and eventually she started kicking and swimming on her own. Note: this is a somewhat advanced technique and Isla protested a lot at first because it requires the parent or teach to let go of the child which can be scary for the child. But if we don't let go, how will they learn on their own? Eventually she got it. 
    The flippers that made the biggest difference of all!
Watching Isla learn to swim, and being a part of it every step of the way, has been one of the most incredible moments in parenthood for me thus far. "I am so proud of myself mommy!" she tells me. Obviously this particular skill is heavily weighted due to our lifestyle and the fact that being able to swim is not only a huge benefit to enjoying island/boat life, but also a means for survival, which is a huge relief. While we are certainly not at the point where I'd leave her in a pool unattended or take my eyes off her for any considerable length of time while she's in the water, she is getting stronger every day. We will continue her lessons with the infamous (and simply magical) "Granny Nanny Annie" and her skills will continue to improve. There is still much work to be done, but we turned a major corner over here and I hope our tips can help some of you to get your tots swimming!

A huge THANK YOU to the wonderful "Grannie Nanny Annie" who really helped us turn this corner. We are forever indebted to you! xo
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