Raising our family on a Sailboat

“Has Maya ever fallen overboard”  That’s the question I get asked the most when people discover that our home is a sailboat. “Wow, how amazing” they invariably say, staring at me with raised eyebrows that really say “how do play dates go down at your place?” Admittedly, ours is a rather unconventional lifestyle, not only because our home floats but also because as travel journos (I write, Dave shoots), we are raising our rapidly growing, homeschooled vegetarian on the move.

Our child, now 11 years old, was literally born onto our boat, so we know what it takes to make life work afloat. Everyone learns to live in close proximity with each other, to weather the weather, and to play and amuse themselves with far less stuff. Like adults, boat kids learn quickly to get along with people from all walks of life – different ages, sexes, cultural backgrounds and with vastly different personalities – and as a result, they grow into some of the most accommodating, adaptable people I know.

Getting started

When a child comes along, it takes remarkable will to maintain or initiate an alternative lifestyle with all its apparent inconveniences and risks. This is especially true if those around you expect you to settle into a more grounded routine with a single address, a playgroup membership and a whole bunch of white goods.

While living aboard is not always easy – we live in each other’s pockets and without many of the usual conveniences of city life – it’s a totally awesome living solution for three itchy-footed travellers like us! Boat life is busy and there’s always something to fix, stow, clean and cook (and sometimes kids to fix/stow/clean too). When your boat becomes your family home, it also becomes your office, school room, playroom, and the place where your kids bloom before your very eyes. You get your kids full-time – for better or worse – and while the messes can be epic, the rewards are immense.

There are lots of other perks. When the winds are favourable we can sail off on a whim, and there are no rates, no rent, no mortgage and no power bills thanks to a rooftop full of solar panels. It’s absolutely not all plain sailing though. In fact, sailing days might be idyllic, tedious, rough, uncomfortable and sometimes absolutely harrowing. We might anchor in calm, translucent waters where we jump right off the boat and kick ashore, only to find that the wind suddenly changes and the swell invades for a sleepless night. There are tropical cyclones to endure, squalls to dodge and reefs to avoid (sometimes!), but when so much is changing around us, things are never dull on the water.

Boatlife with benefits

So how does a liveaboard lifestyle really benefit kids? For starters, having a watery playground right outside your door is a beautiful thing for kids who can jump overboard when the anchor goes down, and spend time surfing, snorkelling, free diving and fishing. Most longterm cruising kids develop deep fascinations with underwater life, and understand the unique pitfalls of our peculiar life, starting with not falling overboard, avoiding estuarine crocodiles and other things that bite and sting. They learn to sail and navigate, read the weather and as a result, learn patience and endurance, and develop respect for the weather. They also develop a healthy understanding of fear too, since, through firsthand experience, they learn that when frightening things happen at sea, there are ways to respond, react and ride them out.

By necessity, living on a boat demands that you cultivate a minimalist lifestyle, if only to keep the waterline in check, and to keep clutter to a minimum. I love that there’s no crazy excess of stuff, because what gets used the most are the toys that get kids moving outside: kayaks, surf and boogie boards, snorkelling gear, yoga silks, and beach toys. When kids come aboard our boat Wild One they want to swing in harnesses around the mast, jump off the bow, muck around in kayaks and, eventually, dry off and play board games together around the table.

When parents become teachers

Having travelled as a trio since Maya was four-weeks-old, she has always been in our direct care. That suits us just fine, but it is something you need to make room for in your life, and commit to as you kids become older. Boat life learning doesn’t really look anything like school, and there is no one way to tackle it. Every liveaboard family I know does it completely differently. Some use online learning programs, others learn by distance education, some unschool and others make up their own programs to suit their kids.

We do sit-down learning but we treat every possible learning experience equally, valuing kite building and learning to surf as highly as geometry and grammar. We cook together, do sciencey things (and blow up stuff), learn about history by exploring places in person, learn to navigate, play musical instruments, practise languages, and spend lots of time outdoors.

It might seem an unconventional life but there are so many families living it. Together, these comrades form an extraordinary village of seafarers, and kids find their tribe in all the adventures we share together. After more than a decade raising a child on a boat, I can honestly say that it’s an awesome way to live and explore the world, and I firmly believe that our happy, curious adventurer is a better person for it.

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