Sailing and Boating with a Toddler: How to Keep Them Safe and Entertained While Underway

toddler sailing while wearing a baby life jacket

Traveling has always been a big part of our family. We love to explore far off lands and having a baby didn’t stop our wanderlust (Hello, we spent my maternity leave in Italy!). We absolutely love taking Zoe to new places, letting her try new foods, play with kids she doesn’t speak the same language as and experiencing new cultures. What we don’t always love about travel is the getting there part. Gone are the days of binging on rom-coms or staring out into the sunset as the hours pass by. Now, we have a very active 2-year-old to keep entertained.  Boating with a toddler certainly makes passages a bit more challenging, but with a little creativity and seasoned sailing parent recommendations, we now have an arsenal of activities to break out when she gets bored.

Keeping them Safe

Before we figured out how to keep our toddler entertained, the first thing we had to consider were the different ways to keep her safe while we’re underway. Sailing with toddlers is full of complexities as they want to move and explore every single second of their days so making sure they don’t hurt themselves while we’re sailing is an absolute necessity. There is nothing like an ER visit to ruin an otherwise fun day (Been there. This toddler boat has 3 options for safety, and we generally let her pick which one she’d like to do.

1. A secured car seat

Just a sunset sail by the Statue of Liberty – she doesn’t know how good she has it.

We installed eye bolts so that we could latch her car seat into the cockpit, safely protected from the wind and waves by the dodger. This set up is great when both of us are needed for docking, raising sails or something. We try to talk about “her seat” in a fun way so she doesn’t see it as a punishment. We let her watch movies on her tablet while she’s in the chair so she has started to associate it with fun times as opposed to a device that limits her movement. The volume on the tablet is limited, but we’ve had success by connecting it to a bluetooth speaker.

2. In the cockpit wearing her life jacket

When she was an infant we loved the Salus infant life vest, but that taps out at 25lbs. She isn’t quite big enough for a toddler life jacket (30lbs+) so we found the Sterns infant life jacket which is a similar design to the Salus Infant PFD, but is good up to 30lbs. I love the collar on this design and how it protects the back of her head. We also have a tether and harness for her.

3. Down below

When we head inside we typically have a little more freedom, pending on the water conditions. We shed the life jacket and climb into a bunk or sit on the floor and play with whatever toys her little heart desires. We have a little more freedom when I don’t have to worry about toys flying overboard.

Keeping them Entertained

Now that we know how we keep her safe, sailing for kids, especially, needs to be fun, or it isn’t going to be enjoyable for anyone. Here are some of our favorite activities for sailing with a toddler.

1. Travel Toys for Toddlers

great travel toys for 2 year olds include playdough
Successful sailing with kids is all about keeping them happy. Playdough helps.

Some of my best travel toys for plane and car trips also work while underway. My go-tos include Melissa and Doug reusable sticker books, mess-free coloring and playdoh. My favorite of these is probably the playdoh because she’s at the age where her imagination is really developing and it is so versatile. I grab a sheet pan and we make cookies, eat ice cream, cut shapes, make soup, get chased by sharks etc. The possibilities are really endless.

2. Magnet toys

Magnet toys are one of the best travel toys for toddlers. Pair it with a metal lunch box or a baking tray and your kids have a surface to build their creations on. There are so many different companies that make great starter sets, but I like Tegu blocks and Magna-tiles Qubix for toddlers as they are a little easier for their hands to grab and stack.

3. Playing with water

We have a pop-up laundry basket that we use for a bathtub. This works great with a few buckets and toys. Zoe can spend hours (ok, maybe 30 minutes) pouring water from one cup to another, over and over again. Bonus that I can give her a wash down while we’re at it. TIP: If the water is too cold, fill a solar shower and let it heat up first.

4. Puzzles

While Agi’s kids enjoy the puzzles at anchor, they are a great way to pass the time underway.

These can be beginner puzzles or a little more advanced. They take up little space and really help their little minds grow.

5. Trivia

Brain Quest was a fixture of my childhood. My sister and I spent endless hours trying to stump each other on our way to grandma’s so I was so excited to introduce my daughter to these. Their first set of flashcards is for ages 2 – 3 which focuses on building language skills.

6. Build a fort

Grab a sheet, a few pillows and head to the v-berth or aft cabin to let their imaginations run wild.

photo via Cindy Wallach

7. Play Horsie on fenders

Cindy Wallach’s kids used to like to bounce on a fender and pretend it was a horse when they were little. It’s a great way to absorb the waves and help the kids learn and feel the motion of the water.

8. Shoot the Lobster Pots

If you’ve ever sailed in the North East US, you are very familiar with all the uncharted crab and lobster pots you have to dodge. Why not get the kids involved? Pick up a water cannon, and shoot every lobster or crab pot you pass close enough by. Make it a competition, where the winner gets ice cream when you get to port (don’t worry, everyone wins this game!)

9. Fishing

SV Rise loves to get their littles involved early on with a little fishing to pass the time. A small rod can keep a toddler entertained for a long time!

10. Scrub the deck

toddlers in life jackets cleaning their sailboat deck

This genius “game” came to me via Agi.  Her idea is to get them involved in all parts of sailing – charting, watching out for obstacles, and even cleaning – early on so they learn to love it. I love the idea of a clean deck so I’m game for this one! Thankfully, Zoe already loves the clean-up song.

11. Building Boats

Using craft materials and other items found around the boat, Katheryn Litke and her son build boats while underway and do a sea trial of their creations once they dock or anchor.

Do you have a great way to keep your toddler entertained? Let me know and I’ll add you to the list!

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