The answer: when the parents are comfortable and capable. Let’s face it – most don’t think twice about tossing junior in the car and heading off to do life. The yellow line down the middle of the road or red light at an intersection both rely on the judgment and attention of others completely out of your control.
Why is boating perceived differently? Maybe it’s a bit of unfamiliarity combined with an innate fear of drowning. Operator competence and good judgment a given, an infant in a boat is “statistically” safer than one in a vehicle. My kids have been on boats (sail and power) since before they were 1. A bit of preparation and planning is all that’s necessary.
It’s probably no surprise that infants love the motion and noise associated with being on the water. Whether it’s a gentle rocking at anchor or the drone of an engine, most babies are very content going for a boat ride. Placing the car seat low on the floor and wedging it against a seat or bulkhead provides a secure, wind-free ride.
The trick to a baby PFD (personal floatation device) is starting well ahead of time by donning it at home while doing something they enjoy, like eating. Start slow and increase the wear time until they don’t think twice about wearing it. Proper fit is important for safety and comfort, so don’t buy big that allows for room to grow.
Remeamber that shade and sunscreen are important to ensure sensitive skin doesn’t get cooked. Lastly, exhaust fumes are no bueno so keep them away from the transom area, as CO (carbon monoxide) tends to settle there.
There’s an awkward toddler period when they no longer tolerate being trapped by the car seat yet aren’t sure-footed enough to be left to their own mobility. This age requires the most onboard supervision, an adult or older sibling that will sit with junior while under way. When they get the wiggles and simply must move around, find a quiet area to stop and take a break. Break out a favorite toy and baggie of Cheerios, and give them a bit more freedom to wander from one grownup to the next.
As an operator with little ones aboard, think in terms of their short attention span and need for variety. A happy day on the boat is no different than a happy day at home. The boating day can meet their same basic needs with a bit of forethought, preparedness and flexibility. Since junior will dictate the events of the day, relax and go with it.
Stay aware of where little ones are and what they’re doing. Giving everyone plenty of warning for taking off, changing direction or crossing big wakes helps keep kids safe and parents calm. Tailor the day to less stressful areas and activities. After all, the point of getting out on the water is to de-stress.
In the south Delta, the east-west cuts between Old and Middle rivers tend to be heavily used by serious wakeboarders. Head off to one of the many sloughs, such as Potato or Disappointment, a flooded island such as Mildred or quiet anchorage such as Spud Island or Five Fingers for a relaxing day.
Don’t let young ones keep you from getting out on the water. Like anything involving children, some adjustments are necessary but it’s a journey worth the effort. As your crew gets older, involve them in launching, docking, cooler packing, boat cleaning and the like. A boating lifestyle can be enjoyed by a family with kiddos of any age. Have fun and boat safe.
Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed master and ASA sailing instructor. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.