Isn't Sailing with your Kids Dangerous?
Have you Dreamed of Sailing the World with your Kids but are worried it’s too Dangerous?
One of the questions I hear most often about our current lifestyle is “Isn’t sailing offshore dangerous?”
The Most Unsafe I’ve Felt in the last 18 months
Two months ago I felt the most unsafe I’ve felt since leaving our “normal life” 18 months ago.
We were sailing in a massive storm, blowing over 40 knots, that had come seemingly out of nowhere. We had no communication with the outside world, no help, and to top it off Sayo was almost washed overboard after tripping on deck without her harness on.
None of this actually happened. But it sounds terrifying doesn’t it? It’s what most people think of as “worst case” when we talk about offshore sailing. And these scenes make really good movies.
What actually happened was way less dramatic and happens to millions of people hundreds of times a day.
What Actually Happened
I was sitting beside Sayo in a car on a major highway through a park in Vancouver. There were thousands of cars blasting past us in the opposite direction and some seemed to be drifting out of their lane towards us.
I was hanging onto my seat in terror. I remember the conversation in my mind, as my life flashed before my eyes every ten seconds;
“it’s OK, other people know how to drive.”
“NO THEY DON’T! Can’t you see! They’re talking on their phones! Maybe they are drunk!”
“Hundreds of thousands of people drive this road everyday, there is rarely a head on collision.”
“HEAD ON COLLISION! OMG We need to STOP the car NOW! Tell Sayo to pull over, do it!”
I felt more fear for my safety on that short car ride than I’d felt in the entire eighteen months we’ve sailed offshore.
It’s not because I know offshore sailing is statistically safer than driving in a car (it actually is, but I didn’t know that until I started writing this piece).
(I decided to do a bit of research while writing this and discovered that the US Coast Guard conducted a study from 2000 - 2011 on the risks of offshore sailing. They found that sailing presented the same risk to participants as Alpine Skiing.
They also found that most fatalities related to sailing resulted from a failure to wear a lifejacket and subsequent drowning as well as operating a vessel while under the influence of Alcohol.)
Why I Feel Unsafe as a Passenger in a Car and Not Offshore Sailing
I don’t believe that driving a car is extremely unsafe, or dangerous.
I was terrified on that car ride because I felt completely out of control. I felt totally helpless.
I’ve never felt that way sailing offshore with my family.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times where I’ve been scared, where I’ve felt anxious about the size of the waves we’re in, or how hard the wind is blowing.
But there has always been a next step. Something I can do to mitigate the risk and increase the level of safety for my family and myself.
When I’m in a car driving down a highway at 120km/h as a passenger there is not more I can do other than wear my seatbelt and hold on.
I believe there is risk in every choice I make. What defines the level of risk I am willing to take is the value I place on what I want to achieve and how confident I am in my ability to analyse, understand and manage the risk present in achieving this.
Managing Risk and Creating the Conditions of Safety
Sayo and I place a high value on the lifestyle we have chosen to live both for ourselves and for our children.
We are also both confident in our own and each other’s ability to manage and mitigate the risks that are a part of this lifestyle.
This confidence was not always there. It had to be nurtured. The easiest way we’ve found to do this is to share what scares us with each other and support each other in leaning into the things that scare us.
There are MANY things that can be easily done to make sailing offshore with children a safer endeavor than driving them down the Stanley Park Causeway.
I think creating the conditions where I feel safe and my family feels safe is critical in maintaining our safety on a practical level while at sea.
When we feel safe we are generally calm, collected and rational. We make better decisions. We we feel unsafe we are prone to panic and making rushed, irrational, poor decisions.
If you’re not clear on what panic looks like, it’s when the conversation that happened inside my head in the car becomes reality and I start acting on everything I’m thinking.
So in order to be safe we must feel safe. And in order to feel safe, no matter what we’re doing, we must get comfortable with the risks and how we mitigate them.
According to the US Coastguard sailing offshore is statistically no more dangerous than alpine skiing.
I’m willing to take my kids alpine skiing. Why not offshore sailing?
7 Things You Can Do to Make Offshore Sailing Safer For You and Your Family
In my mind safety on a boat falls into two fundamental categories. Safety while underway at sea, and safety while in port or at anchor.
It’s human nature to fear the unknown more than the known so it comes as no surprise that we receive many more questions about safety offshore than we do about staying safe while at anchor.
So what are some specific key things we do to keep ourselves and our kids safe on board?
Let’s start with safety sailing offshore:
#1. Pay attention to the weather
This is the number one way to keep you and your family safe on Passage. Bad weather leads to uncomfortable conditions, stress on the boat, stress on you and stress leads to possible bad decisions.
Buy a subscription to good weather forecasting program like Predictwind, or Windy and make sure you have access to it offshore via a satellite receiver. This technology is incredibly affordable these days and it’s the best insurance you can buy to keep yourself and your family out of harm’s way. (If you are on a shoestring budget and this technology is not in your budget then make friends and buddy boat with someone who has it. They can then provide updates to you over the VHF. We are always happy to share our weather information with anyone who asks and we share it often)
If you’re new to weather forecasting and modeling, or sailing across two weather systems (like the out of the South Pacific to NZ) then consider hiring a professional weather forecaster. I used Metbob on our first passage from New Caledonia to NZ and was amazed that I could hire professional meteorological help and receive a personalized forecast and route for just $70 NZD!
We typically do not leave to go anywhere with the kids on board if the wind is forecast to blow more than 25 knots. Is it doable to sail in higher winds? Definitely! But it’s not comfortable for the kids and it increases the risk factor. So why do it?
#2 - When heading offshore we bring crew
We have friends who sail with three kids under five on a 44 foot monohull. We met them in Tonga after they had just completed sailing NZ to Tonga on their own. They were physically and mentally exhausted and told us that they had actually thought seriously about selling the boat and ending their trip the passage had been so bad.
My first question was why didn’t you bring crew?
I am amazed at the number of families who sail offshore with kids without crew. Especially because there are thousands of people who are willing to sail on your boat for free, or even pay you for the experience.
I have taken on crew on every offshore passage I have done, and with the exception of my first crossing, the crew has paid for the experience.
But what if the crew has no sailing experience?
Awesome! You can ask them to keep an eagle eye on the kids while you and your wife sail the boat.
But we don’t have space for crew!
The great thing about people looking for an opportunity to sail offshore is they are usually willing to put up with a few discomforts. It’s part of the experience and the adventure. Be upfront about what your accomodation situation is. We know several families that take crew who sleep on settees, or even in the cockpit!
#3 - Wear lifejackets and harnesses
Remember how I opened this article? Big storm, nasty conditions and Sayo slipping and falling without a harness on! While that hasn’t happened yet and if we’re paying attention to suggestion #1 hopefully we avoid that weather all together. But if we don’t we want it to be automatic that the life jacket and harness goes on before going on deck in those conditions. The best way we’ve found to make it automatic is to make it a habit we practice all the time.
The more we practice the less likely we are to find ourselves out on deck in the shit with no protective gear. We made it a requirement to wear a lifejacket and harness when leaving the cockpit offshore and suggest you do the same. (Of course if its flat calm and we are swimming around the boat waiting for wind we waive this requirement)
Things can happen quickly offshore, particularly in nasty weather. There are conflicting views on this, but I believe it is important to wear both a life jacket and a harness if you are going to leave the cockpit while offshore. I tell all my crew the number one rule of sailing offshore is “do not fall off the boat”. The harness and tether provides a great deal of help with this if you lose your balance or get knocked over by a wave.
We do not allow our kids to leave the cockpit while offshore, even while wearing a life jacket, unless the wind is blowing less than 10 knots. In those conditions they can go forward, but only in direct supervision of an adult who is less than an arms length away.
But what if they slip and fall over?
#4 - Install lifeline netting
We installed lifeline netting this year and have no idea why we did not do it sooner. We maintain all of the above rules for the kids and the lifeline netting simply provides an additional layer of security for both us and the kids.
On our boat we had to run a third rope “lifeline” at the bottom of the stanchions in order to tightly secure the lifeline netting so it would function properly when needed.
As a bonus the lifeline netting catches all sorts of items that get accidently dropped on deck and would otherwise bounce overboard!
#5 - Install Lee Cloths
We installed an oversized lee cloth on Miya’s bedroom as soon as we moved onto the boat to enclose her bed. While she doesn’t need it up to stop her from falling out of the bed at anchor it is a blessing to have while under sail. To be able to put her to bed and not worry about her accidently waking up and falling out is worth ten times what we paid for the lee cloth.
#6 - Prepare meals in advance
We have found that having meals prepared in advance relaxes the environment on board during passage. We don’t have to spend as much time in the kitchen and can spend more time sailing the boat and hanging out with the kids. Being well fed and relaxed increases safety! Sayo has some great one pot recipes that she is happy to share.
#7 - If you really don’t want your kids to make the passage don’t bring them!
Sayo has chosen to fly with kids a couple of times now instead of making the longer passages. Usually in and out of the South Pacific. She and the kids have avoided the stress of being on passage and I had the opportunity to enjoy sailing with a larger crew. On the last passage from NZ I had a Finnish Couple, a Czech Couple and a Swiss guy on board and we had a blast!
Ultimately it’s up to you to decide if you’re comfortable passage-making with your kids. Everyone has a different level of risk they are comfortable with. We know some families that sail without crew and without access to any weather forecasting service. They have been doing it for years and are still doing it.
The things I have suggested are the things that we are doing right now and are working for us on board Family Circus. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but is a good general overview the key items we focus on to maintain safety offshore.
Is Offshore Sailing Dangerous?
Is sailing offshore dangerous? Yes! Does that mean it should not be attempted by a family? NO! I believe anything worth doing in life carries with it the risk of danger and uncomfortable moments. That’s what makes it worth doing!
If you’re considering going sailing with your family and find yourself worried about danger and how to mitigate risk, my final suggestion is stop focusing on how to mitigate all the risks. You’ll never do it.
In my experience, focusing on mitigating all the risks is a fruitless activity that keeps me stuck on the hamster wheel of fear of the unknown.
Instead of focusing on reasons why you shouldn’t go sailing, focus on why you want to go on this adventure and the impact you see it having on your life and your kids.
If you’re comfortable taking your kids skiing, you’re not taking any additional risk taking them sailing.
If you enjoy my writing and want to read more of it, please sign up for "The Captain's Log", me and my writing straight to your inbox twice a month.