Cruising is great for families! Cruising grows healthy kids! Cruising kids are exceptionally well socialized! Cruising can provide kids a broad world view! These are true, but oversimplifications. For all the great benefits to be derived from this lifestyle, it won’t work for a family if the kids aren’t happy, and you can’t take happy kids for granted. Starting young, it’s less complicated; older kids who have to separate more meaningfully from routines and friends in particular are more challenging.
We started in a magic window of ages when our kids (newly turned 4, 6 and 9) mostly wanted to hang out with mom and dad. Friends were important, but our nuclear family was most important. Every child is unique and every family will experience this differently, but I believe it to be generally true and a circumstance that’s fostered and maintained close relationships in our family.
As kids grow older, it’s progressively important that they have other kids to hang out with. Nomadic kids have a lower bar for friends to enter that playgroup circle: they quickly unlearned the false importance of age, gender, interests, or other artificial boundary lines.
That next best friend isn’t an anchorage away. Occasionally, yes, but it takes planning more than serendipity or you’ll have lonely kid(s). This costs a big element of control for your route planning: not easy, especially for families planning a shorter sabbatical cruise with a vision for where they want to go.
1. Find the hubs
Every region has a hub and a season where boats gather: get yourself there, and you’ll connect with families. Those families may become your buddy boats, or the boats that connect you with your kids’ next best cruising kid friend. Marathon / Boot Key Harbor, Florida, collect cruising families as boats stage to head to the Bahamas for the winter; as the season picks up, it’s George Town, Bahamas where you’ll find them. Prickly Bay, Grenada, gets the biggest kid boat call during hurricane season and St Martin / Sint Maarten seems to be a crossroads in general.
2. Connect online
Every other boat has a blog/Instagram/YT channel/Facebook page. Dial into the kid boat community online, and use that as a way to find, track, and connect with other families. This is one of the reasons SailingTotem has an active family blogroll page to browse.
Another good resource are Facebook groups, and they are myriad! Try Liveaboard families: Med, in, well, the Med; more generally are Liveaboard sailing families (with kids); on Kids4Sail, there’s an admin post the first of the month with regional check-ins to help families find each other. Family travel groups like Worldschooling are used by cruisers too.
Checking up on position/tracking tools will also help you find kids boats. We use several on Totem. One that’s pictured below, Farkwar, has a “fleet” for kid boats. Check out: FollowingSea (formerly CruiserSatNet) has a number of regional kid boat groups, too, and NoForeignLand has the Kids4Sail group boats. By checking one URL (and a bit of clicking/dragging) I can see which vessels signed up for the kid boat fleet are near us—and follow boats in our region that we hope to catch up with (like the three teens on Allegro!).
3. Use those connections!
Don’t just follow families, reach out! As a parent of teens on board I LOVE IT when another family with teens reaches out to see if we can connect when they see we may be in the same region. We help each other out with introductions to each other, since plenty of families aren’t as active in social media.
4. Location matters
West coast cruisers have it much easier: cruising boats flow in a linear path along the coastline. In the South Pacific, they migrate along a seasonal route, the so-called Coconut Milk Run, westward; typically with a dip down to New Zealand or Australia during the southern hemisphere cyclone season. Boats arriving in French Polynesia from Mexico will have known each other for months already; new friends enter with the Caribbean fleet sailing down from Panama.
The myriad of routing options from boats departing the US east coast for the Caribbean complicates things; it’s less likely to happen organically, especially for tween/teens. I’m told the Mediterranean is similar, where again there are a wealth of options for routing instead of a linear progression followed by most cruisers. And some regions, well, they’re simply off the beaten path: South America. The Indian Ocean. We loved our year in remote Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, but it was many moons without another family boat and were REALLY READY for socializing by the time we reached more trafficked cruising grounds. Being around other kid boats is a choice that requires engagement.
On Totem we’re lucky to have a built in tribe. Our kids are tight, and their reliance on each other has surely strengthened this bond.
After a presentation in Miami last month, Niall responded to a question from the audience about the social side cruising as a teen. He has perspective on the pros and cons, but summarized it by saying “my sisters are my best friends.” I might have teared up a little, but it’s true.
Wonderful as it is that they are so tight, they also need OTHER kids. Staying in touch with cruising friends through email and texting is important: they routinely use Google Hangouts to chat with friends across several continents, maintaining long term relationships. They’re important, but not a replacement for in-person interactions.
With teens aboard, the happiness calculus gets more complicated. FOMO goes to a whole new level for kids that rely on phone/internet to feel connected. There’s a whole chapter in Voyaging With Kids dedicated to the unique needs and perspective of teens.
Personal space is key (Siobhan and Mairen have already worked out who gets Niall’s cabin when he leaves for college). For families looking at moving aboard, it’s not just the physical space but how they personalize it to make it theirs. As teens build and connect with their growing identities as young adults, we support them as parents by giving them a voice in planning. Family planning is a round table where everyone’s goals and desires are taken into account. Their desires matter, whether it’s plans for the day or the season.
Shifting Totem plans
We’ve had a long stretch with few boat kids in their age range (getting within a three year spread would be great). There have been intersections that provided critical injections of camaraderie, but we’re all feeling it. Leaving Florida so late in the season put us out of sync with the migratory fleet. It’s pulling us to shift our summer plans, and look at hustling south to Grenada sooner rather than later. It’s partly the promise of the a gathered fleet during hurricane season, but mostly because another kid boat—friends we’ve crossed an ocean with—are sailing there soon. Hurricane season worries factors in, too; we have no insurance coverage during named storms, and Grenada is relatively safe from historical storm tracks. Parts of our plans more fixed than flexible (Niall is keen to cross our circumnavigation track in Pacific Mexico before college next year), but this is a shift we can make.
It throws our calendar up in the air again, but that’s a kind of status quo for us lately. This much we know: as great as our kids are at flying together as a solo tribe, we’re looking forward to connecting them with kids closer to their age again soon.