An Enlightened Childhood

They’re awesome and frustrating, amusing and incredibly annoying. They can be spoiled beyond belief, and other times they’ll surprise you with their insights and un-jaded view of the world. They crave attention and want constant stimulus.
I don’t have kids, but I’ve spent the past four years working with them. Not that long ago, I was one. I still am a kid, really. At least I feel more like one than a soon-to-be thirty-something.
I grew up on boats. Not the modern yachts around which my friends and I have been working since we began “ adulthood, †or something resembling it. No, my days as a kid on my dad’s 36-foot ketch Sojourner were filled with adventure. When I was 9, my mom and dad absconded with my sister and I, and we set off to cruise the Bahamas for a winter. We traveled mostly with other adults, cruising in company with my parents’ friends who didn’t have kids. If I remain a kid at heart to this day, it’s likely because my childhood was spent more like an adult — my fourth-grade classmates followed my progress from back home while my companions on the water were rum-drinking pirates.
Dad and I would go on spearfishing excursions. One of our favorite spots was a single coral head in about 15 feet of water near Sampson Cay in the Exumas. My dad wore glasses and didn’t have a prescription mask, so I was his eyes — I did the spotting, he did the spearing. We weren’t particularly good; our best catch was a handful of squirrel fish, a margate and one solitary grouper.
We were excellent conch fisherman. My 7-year-old sister would join us in the dinghy, providing “ surface support. †Dad and I would tow her along as we snorkeled over the grassy bottom collecting our dinner. We’d fill the dinghy with conch, and after a while they’d get restless and start inching around the floor of the dinghy, much to my sister’s chagrin. In a panic, she’d climb up on one of the pontoons. I’m not sure what she was afraid of — they aren’t exactly fast movers.
We hiked a lot. At Norman’s Cay, we explored the ruins of the drug cartel operations based there in the ’70s and ’80s. The first time my mom and dad visited in 1980, before us kids, the island was closed to cruising boats, ruled by the drug lords with steel boats and machine guns. In the end, the cruisers won out, and we enjoyed the spoils. With a bunch of my parents’ adult friends, we barbecued on the deck of an abandoned mansion. The scene set in the Bahamas from the movie Blow was almost personal for me.
What we didn’t have aboard Sojourner were luxuries from home, something a modern yachtie kid has in abundance. I did have some of my favorite Legos along, jammed in the quarter berth that was my cabin. And I became a voracious reader, devouring books far above my supposed fourth-grade reading level.
On a yacht with all the comforts from home (and then some), it’s all too easy to sit the kids in front of the cinema or the Wii console. Or tow them in the inner tube behind the WaveRunners. Or simply ignore them while the adults entertain themselves over cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and supposed adult conversation.
Boring kids to death with the same mindless entertainment they get at home is laziness on the part of the caretaker, whether mom, dad, the deckhand, stew or the skipper is given this responsibility. Take the kids diving. Go hiking. Involve the kids in the running of the boat. Get the skipper to teach them to navigate, not with the GPS and computers but with paper charts and hand-bearing compasses. Teach them the night sky and show them how to use a sextant. Get them on the bridge and steering the boat, not with the autopilot but by hand.
If they’re old enough, teach them “ dinghy school, †and empower them to explore on their own. Team them up with the chef and send them on missions to the local markets in search of a food they’ve never seen or heard of before. Heck, involve them in some of the adult conversations — this was certainly a highlight of my seafaring childhood. In short, excite their imagination with the things that are different from home.
My career as a writer and yacht captain is on a decidedly different tack from many of those fourth-grade classmates I abandoned for a year back in 1993. My parents always encouraged me to follow my passions. And they most definitely knew how to entertain me as a youngster. I was never bored and always stimulated; they had the world as a classroom and opened my eyes to things my mates back home could scarcely imagine.
Don’t waste kids’ formative years on the comforts of home. It will take some effort on your part, but you’ll end up with happier kids — and a quieter boat when they all pass out smiling and exhausted in the evenings.
Andrew Karlsson is a professional captain and freelance writer who, along with his fiancé, Mia, is preparing to sail their yawl Arcturus across the Atlantic to Sweden. Visit Andy’s website at www.fathersonsailing.com.