My son and I lived on our forty foot sailboat for two years and it was one of the best parts of my life and now, ten years later is something that he also looks back on as a wonderful period of his life. I have some advice I would like to share with parents that are considering living on a boat with their children on how best to prepare for this new lifestyle.
1. Make sure your children are comfortable aboard before you spring the plan on them. This of course depends on their age (my son was 12 when we left – more about that later) but he grew up boating so this was a very easy part of our preparation. Some families we met while we were living on our boat started their life aboard with very little previous boating experience and they told us that it was very difficult transition for many months. Just like the saying about first impressions are critical – the same goes for a dramatic change in lifestyle such as this. Take your children out on the boat for a few months, make sure you have many fun activities planned and make sure the conditions are good when you go out including fair weather and calm seas.
2. Make them excited about what life aboard will be like. You know what your children like to do and what aspects of a life aboard will appeal to them so be sure to accentuate that. My son loves adventure and going new places so that was easy to talk about with him. We would sit down with a map and plot out where we would go and talk about all of the cool things to see and do in those places. My son was never overly fond of school or homework so I told him how instead of spending 8 hours a day at school followed by the homework his home schooling would only take 2 – 4 hours including homework – needless to say that really appealed to him.
3. Discuss your children's concerns with them and make them comfortable with the plans to overcome them. One of my sons concerns was that he would miss his friends and family. This was a very valid concern and one I also wanted to find a solution for. We agreed that we would come back home every 2 – 3 months and spend a week or so staying with a family member that lives in our home town. This worked great for us and the time we scheduled to come home was usually centered around a holiday or popular vacation time so we were able to have plenty of quality time with friends and family. We also had many friends and family visit us in some cool places to help us keep in close contact with them all. Another thing we did is we started a web page that my son set up and kept updated. It also had a contact us page so it was a great way for him to be involved in our trip and kept our family and friends involved with what we were doing and helped assure them that we were safe and having a great time.
4. Make sure they are involved with the planning and preparations. This will also make them more comfortable with the plans for living aboard and will help to get them excited. My son and I sat down together and picked out what equipment we would buy and of course I especially made sure he was involved with selecting the items he would consider cool or fun. We spent hours (spread out over months of course – after all a 12 year olds attention span is somewhat limited) sitting down at our kitchen table picking out the electronics, safety gear (his own self-inflating vest, strobe light to attach to the vest, submersible VHF radio etc), charts for where we would visit, courtesy flags for the countries we planned on visiting – and did I mention the latest video game console? I hate to admit it but that was the final straw that got him excited about our plans to live aboard. I told him I would get him the latest PlayStation console – hey, whatever it takes to keep peace in the family. Our final stop before we shoved off was one of his favorites. We went to Walmart and stocked up on lots of dry goods. If we were ever lost at sea we could have lived for 6 months on what we bought. Just keeping him out of the Smores Pop Tarts was the hard part. I have to admit, they are good – especially after a few seconds in the microwave.
5. Pick a good time in your / their life to depart. Of course the important part is to go, you will never regret it and you may not be able to pick or wait for the 'perfect time' to go but it certainly makes sense to wait until the end of the school year or some similar milestone . I was lucky that the perfect time for us to go was when my son was entering middle school (7th and 8th grades for him). We left in the fall after all of his friends had started middle school (which is a tough, very transitional time for kids anyway) and we were back just before the summer break that preceded him entering high school. He was 12 when we left and 14 when we came back so he was old enough to be able to be a big help on the boat, old enough to not have to constantly worry about him getting hurt or falling over board, old enough to do most of the home schooling himself (which was great because instead of daydreaming while the teacher talked he had to be active in his school work) and not so old that he had become a sultry, 'I am embarrassed to be with my parents' teenager – that came later after we were back home.
6. Home schooling your children. Before we departed I researched the best way to home school my son and quickly settled on using The Calvert School because they met all my criteria:
• I was looking for a well-known, respected and established home schooling company
• I wanted detailed daily lesson plans with extra projects, experiments and outside reading assignments that corresponded to his course work
• I wanted his tests to be graded and a transcript kept by the home schooling system
His home schooling worked out very well while we lived aboard and when we returned to his public school system they readily accepted the transcript from The Calvert School and placed him back in honors classes so it was a very smooth transition.
Overall living aboard a boat with my son was a great experience for both of us and is one we will never forget. We had some tough times of course but those are the ones you look back on and laugh about. Years later my son told me that it was tough getting back into his friendships but we did our best to avoid that by keeping our same house (we rented it out while we were gone) and quickly got him back into the same boy scout troop and several of his former sports teams so it was a fairly quick transition. We both agree that we gained much more from our experience living aboard than the tradeoffs we endured and have a bond together that few parents and children get to share.