Cruising with very young children onboard can be a fun and rewarding experience, for both child and adult, but it does offer some challenges. Some time preparing your boat for the adventure can pay big dividends in terms of safety and peace of mind. This will translate into more enjoyment for all parties and will help alleviate a great deal of stress.
So I found out.
Ben (probably not his real name) was two when he came aboard Wired. Never having had children of my own, I'm not sure I fully appreciated what that meant. Until our first weekend underway, that is. First off, two-year-olds are fast. Bad puppy fast. They're inquisitive, they like to push buttons and although they can say "no", I'm not convinced they know exactly what it means.
Sometimes during my safety briefings Ben just seemed to be staring off into space.
Wired is, as regular readers know, a motoryacht. Childproofing a motoryacht is no doubt easier than doing the same to a sailing yacht but my focus would no doubt translate to either. My primary goals were, 1: To ensure children stayed onboard. 2: To be able to sometimes restrict them to a safer part of the vessel away from potentially dangerous activities. 3: To regain my control over which switches were on or off at any given time. The rest we could work on later.
Staying onboard seemed like the obvious place to start. Putting aside the problem of the opening gates, my strategy here was simple. I'd do what the sailboaters do and hang netting around the lifelines. Quick and easy. Well, perhaps not quick but still relatively easy. Except for attaching to the long sections of teak handrails I'd just finished detailing. Having no toerail to attach the bottom of the netting slowed things down a bit too. Still, relatively straight-forward stuff – some fairleads under the rail, hose clamps at the bottom of the stanchions and some stout string through the hem – all very seamanlike. Well, if not seamanlike at least effective.
The solution for the gates would come as I dealt with trying to establish 'out of bounds' areas. Not wanting to 're-invent the wheel' I again went looking for solutions elsewhere. I considered the signs employed by ferries and commercial boats restricting passenger movements. Given my experience with the safety briefings, I was pretty sure Ben would ignore them. A more sophisticated solution would be necessary. I remembered the gates that prevented access to Granny's living room. If such primitive technology could be employed to keep a young boy out, it could surely be modified to keep one in. A call to Custom Canvas, a cruise around the deck to establish the borders and we soon had our solution.
Zippers, Velcro, snaps and, later, zip ties to lock the zippers, allowed me to quickly establish 'safe zones'. The canvas 'doors' work well and solved the problem of the boarding gates, too. This solution is both elegant and seamanlike.
The third element in my scheme to make Wired more child friendly was ensuring that I would never again have an experience like the day I was conning from the flybridge, steaming along toward Johnson Reef in the Virgin Islands when suddenly the chartplotter, depthsounder and engine stabilizers shut down. Ben had found the primary distribution panel and was neatly arranging the columns of switches with little regard for which instruments I may be using at the time. (I can go without the stabilizers but let's face it; most of you are as dependent as I am on my chartplotter. When is the last time you kept a DR or took a noon sight on a day sail?)
Wired has three electrical panels on the maindeck. Depending on your perspective, whether navigating from the flybridge or about to push the button on a Vacuflush
toilet, they might all be considered critical. Therefore, they all needed protection.
The panels are concealed inside neat mahogany and glass cabinets but were not locked. A nail through the stile would have worked but in this case even an ordinary external hasp and padlock might have been a bit too crude. I found the ideal solution at the local Home Depot. Their concealed cabinet hardware presents a neat appearance and has the benefit of mounting flush with no protrusions. Installation is straightforward although it did require a certain degree of precision and a couple of sharp woodworking tools, which they cleverly stock in the adjacent aisle.
Of course making it impossible to fall through the rails does nothing to stop a child from climbing over a rail, and gates are only temporary measures. Nothing can make up for vigilance and every adult on the yacht shares the responsibility for the safety of every child on board. Boating is a great family activity and starting your children early is a good way to develop their love of the lifestyle. Remember, the very best protection comes from wearing a PFD whenever appropriate.
Enjoy your time afloat.
Peter Patterson is a Canadian Coast Guard certificated Master and an ABYC certified marine technician. He is a former Canadian Yachting Association Instructor/Evaluator and powerboat instructor.