Cruising Stories

Keeping Kids Entertained at Sea

Credit Kia Koropp

For the past 10 years, my husband and I have cruised with our children and learned about the delights and challenges of raising kids at sea. As I write, we are in our third week of a four-week passage and as always, the kids do amazingly well with the restrictions and the mundane that life confined to a small space brings.

Long passages with infants were the periods that people fretted most, but it was by far the easiest stage. Feed, eat, sleep and all was well onboard. As they grew older, however, the requirements for entertaining them became greater. We had to devise ways to keep them occupied when there was little around to occupy them, and they demanded our constant attention.

I remember mind-numbing hours spent driving little toy trucks back and forth in the cockpit, thinking one more hour as a truck driver and my spirit would break. But as they aged, our ability to get creative increased, and soon we’d developed an invaluable compendium of useful tools and tricks to keep the days ticking over when we spent any length of time at sea.

We started “passage presents” very early on. The kids each received a present on the first day of a long passage, something that they looked forward to and helped them focus on going rather than staying. They counted down the days until we departed with great excitement, knowing something special was coming their way as soon as our bows pointed toward the open ocean.

These gifts gave them something to keep them busy on the initial days at sea, so we could focus on settling the boat in while they remained occupied with their new treats. We included a mid-way present for passages longer than three weeks or more, and the cycle of a new time-consuming obsession would repeat.

We also adopted “theme day,” where we played dress-up and acted in character throughout the day. These were great fun for child and adult alike, and consumed hours in preparation and play. Some of our funnier transit moments came out of these days, such as “Snow Day” when we used all the surplus toilet paper to teepee the boat in long streamers of “falling snow,” laid sheets throughout the saloon and had a huge snowball fight in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

We celebrated “Rainforest Day” on entry into India and made origami birds that we hung from the saloon roof and dressed up in an odd assortment of bush animals: A hummingbird, howler monkey, ocelot and the Cat in the Hat, all taken from the book that inspired the theme.

We spent the day in animal character until we turned into the port and got ready for the lengthy clearance process. We half-flung our outfits aside as our priority changed, and by the time the officials came onboard I’d completely forgotten that my face was painted up as a cat, complimented by a red nose and long black whiskers. It wasn’t until the officials departed and I was getting ready for bed that I looked in the mirror and saw a cat looking back. It then dawned on me with total hilarity why I kept getting curious looks by the friendly Indian officials. They were polite enough not to point and ask, but I’m sure we provided them with good laughter that evening.

Credit Kia Koropp

Stories aside, the kids have come to love theme days, and we continue to indulge the activity on every passage. It helps us break the monotony of the cyclical days at sea and provides an excuse for all of us to get silly and play.

As the kids grew to the age when they could appreciate fantasy, we started getting visits by “guardian angels” who checked in during our passages and left books under their pillows with little messages inscribed. It was a great way to get them excited about reading when they were getting old enough to enjoy books. To be told to read by a parent was much less thrilling than being gifted a magical book by a fairy.

Because we were isolated from schools, we could maintain this magical fantasy for them far longer, and they still look under their pillows when we are at sea for messages and gifts from their imaginary friends. This tradition has added a little magic to our lives and increased the excitement for passages.

A few years ago, we crossed from Europe to West Africa during December, and I created an advent calendar that was full of activities tucked behind little swinging doors for each day of the passage. It was a huge success. Each morning, the kids would spring out of bed to be the first to open the day’s event, and the diversity of activities had us doing things through those idle weeks at sea that we would never have otherwise done.

We had LEGO competitions and puppet theater, wrote lyrics for songs and poetry, drew cartoons, and created little comic books, baked cakes and cookies — each providing a new inspiration for the journey. Our altered advent calendar was inspirational, and we adopted an “activity calendar” for each passage we take.

Before we head out, the kids write out an activity for as many days we will be at sea. Each morning of the trip, they open the box and take out one little paper ticket that indicates the objective for the day. The kids now keep a daily journal that tracks each activity and what we’ve done as a family to fulfil it. I hope they will be treasured heirlooms one day, allowing them to recall some of the playful times we shared as a family during a period that can easily turn monotonous for a child.

We also make sure to mark the moments: We celebrate every thousand miles we clock off, observe the half-way point of every trip, and if we cross the equator (the kids are now on their sixth ceremony) John and I dress up as King and Queen Neptune and carry out a ritual of dunking their bodies in seawater and presenting them with a certificate of accomplishment. All these little moments are marked as mini successes, allowing us to grab moments in route and turn them into an excuse to celebrate.

While every cruising family will have their own tricks up their sleeve to make long distance transits tolerable, these are a few that helped us enjoy our time at sea. As adults, it is easy to let the slow passage of time roll over you, absorbing the quiet solitude of long days at sea. If you travel with children, however, this luxury isn’t afforded to you. Your young crew demands — and deserves — stimulation in a rather un-stimulating environment. Finding ways that punctuate the trip with moments of bonding and unity, of creativity and playfulness, not only pass the time but create everlasting memories.

So, whatever event you create using whatever inspires your family, grab each moment and do something special with it. This will turn a passage from a challenge to get through to a destination to look forward to in itself.

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