Children on Boats are Still Children

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This morning I received an email from a reader who was struggling with a boating safety question.  She and her husband enjoy the water and and they have two small children and they just couldn’t seem to get together on one issue:

How much supervision is enough out there on the water?  She gave me permission to post her question and my answer to her here.

What do you think? Your comments would be appreciated.

Here is the email and my answer:



Hey Mario –

Given your area of expertise, I was hoping you could provide an opinion on a boating matter to help settle a family discussion.

Here goes – Do you think it is wise for an adult to boat alone with two 2-year-olds. They would be on a standard pontoon boat that has seating around the entire front and 36″ guard rail where there isn’t seating. The little ones would obviously be in life vests. The adult would not be wearing a life vest (but there would be an available life vest for him on the boat). Thoughts?

Thanks for your input! I didn’t know who to ask and you came to mind!!

If you are celebrating Easter – Happy Easter!

A Concerned Mom

Never shrinking from getting into the middle of a family …discussion…I replied.

Dear Concerned Mom:

There are a huge number of variables to consider and I thought about getting into all of them but I’ll just tell you my initial gut reaction and why I had it:

On a calm, shallow, backwater or pond? Sure…if I could strap the kids down…and I knew the area…and I could walk the boat back to shore.

On almost anything else…rivers, large lakes, the ocean, bays….no way.

There is no way in the world I would feel comfortable handling a boat AND two toddlers on open water. If anything does go wrong, the consequences are too great for very little gain. Sure, the kids would have a blast and it would be a great experience, but they would have a blast if two adults were aboard as well. Why go alone? I can’t imagine what would be so pressing that I would not be able to wait for another adult (or young-adult) to be available to go along for the ride.

Most people make these decisions (What could go wrong?) based on the likelihood of all out tragedy. The logic sounds like, “They are wearing life jackets, if they do fall overboard, I can definitely get to them….what could go wrong?”

It’s a fair point – the chances of all out tragedy are remote – but there are other thing besides drowning to consider:

Example: The adult is handling the boat (a full time job) and another boat throws a wake (as they often do) and the toddler that isn’t on the operator’s lap takes a tumble and cracks her mouth on the really nice 36″ railing. Now we are offshore, alone, 45 minutes from medical care (if we are lucky) and we have two full time jobs – boat handling and a screaming toddler…..and the life jackets never came into play.

(I’ve seen that one, personally. It was a full lip split and face fracture of a 3-yr old on a North Carolina sound. Calm water, 1 mile from shore.)

Sometimes it helps to rephrase the question to change perspective. You asked, “Do you think it is wise for an adult to boat alone with two 2-year-olds?”

Put it this way: “Do you think it is wise to take small children who have yet to fully develop basic coordination, who may or may not follow instructions, and who’s basic response to crisis is screaming, out on the most unpredictable environment within 50 miles of our house, in a machine with literally hundreds of moving parts…..alone?”

What is YOUR answer to that question?

Mom, I don’t know which side of this you are on, but from my perspective (and no kidding I am an expert at this stuff) I wouldn’t take a small boat on the open water (Great Lakes?) with two-children alone for love or money.

Two adults. One for the boat, one for the kids. Now we are being safe enough for the risk.

I hope that helps.

Happy Easter, and be safe out there!

~ Mario

So what do you think?  Am I taking this safety thing with the kids too far?  Are two-adults aboard, one for the boat and one for the kids too much to expect?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:50+00:00 April 24th, 2011|Boating Safety, Risk, Water Safety|47 Comments

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  • Echo

    No I don’t think you are taking it too far to suggest two adults…as you said.. it is a full time job just operating the boat.. Better to be too safe than too sorry !

  • KRose

    I concur!! And, what if one of them actually did fall out of the boat? Now, you’ve got the only adult “abandoning” the boat to rescue the one child, leaving the other completely alone on the boat. Hmmm…….I would even go so far as to say that one adult with only ONE toddler is not enough! Great question and advice.

  • BB

    Right on the money, two year olds have the capacity to move at light speed at precisely the wrong time. Ever try to corral a determined 2 year-old? As soon as a boat enters the mix, a minimum of 2 operators should be on board.

  • How to handle a toddler overboard is a very good question. No matter how the recovery was done, it would be a very risky move if all alone.

  • Jdalf0527

    I don’t like being left on land with 2 two year olds by myself.You are right on the money.

  • Pingback: “Children on Boats are Still Children” | Periodically Peregrine()

  • Blcrowley

    You are right on, Mario! Ona adult and one two year old would be difficult enough on a boat, but two two year olds?? You definitely need a second responsible person whose only ‘job’ is to watch the kids!!

  • AK Mama

    AND the other adult needs to know how to handle the boat as well.

  • Mitch Zeissler

    I agree as well.

    Thirty-five years ago my toddler sister was horsing around in the cockpit of our sailboat while we were at anchor, when she fell and gashed the back of her head open on a sharp boat hook. Being a really nasty head wound, she bled like a stuck pig. Fortunately, both of my parents were there; my dad took my sister into shore for medical assistance and my mom stayed with my brother and me. It may have turned out very differently with just one parent.

  • I completely agree with your assessment and add this: as I read, a picture came to mind of the children wearing life jackets and the life jackets being tethered to a center console. Thus keeping the children away from danger of falling overboard. That would be an option even if there are two adults on the boat.

    Another idea. Perhaps car seats and seat belts would be appropriate while the vessel is underway?

  • I’m not at all sure that is a good idea. The idea of tying anyone to a vessel is unnerving to me. Things happen too fast out there and I can’t imagine having to add “untie the kids” to the list of things to do in the event that you start taking on water. The rails, life jackets, and your attention should keep them from the dangers associated with falling overboard.

  • SO TRUE! That made me remember a story. Last April, my 6 month old Shih-Tzu puppy fell off the gunwale into the lake and my 24 yr old son was at the helm. I have diminished lung capacity and cannot swim very long, so my son cut the engine and jumped overboard into frigid water to rescue the puppy. Only two days earlier, I had my son teach me the trick to start the engine on his boat. GOOD THING HE DID!

  • Lili Colby

    Personally, I would want to be in sight and within easy access of the shore. I am with you 100% on the safety aspect. But also, parents need to think proactively about the experience for the child. You don’t want to turn a kid off from boating by being on the water too long, in the hot sun getting sunburned or dehydrated, or chilled and uncomfortable in a damp cold.

    Near shore boating with little ones can be safe AND fun! Think about looking at the water world through their eyes… boating near shore with lots of things to look at – birds, turtles, frogs, reeds, water lilies – is a lot more interesting and engaging for little kids compared to open water. What YOU like as an adult is not what may engage the child. And be prepared to call it a day when THEY get tired. For a 2 year old, that usually is a pretty short period of time. Your child will learn to love boating too you make it a safe and fun experience.

    Finally, the best part of the whole day for your kid just might be messing around on the beach throwing rocks into the water as you launch the boat. Be sure that kids wear their life jackets ON SHORE TOO while you are busy getting the boat ready or putting gear away at the end of the day. So choose your child’s life jacket carefully to make sure it fits well. Getting one that is TOO BIG because they will grow into it is a BAD IDEA. It needs to fit snug not only because it needs to support them correctly int the water, but also because they need to be able to move, run, and play in them! They are going to be wearing a PFD a lot more than you are if you insist that they wear it anytime around water, not just in the boat.

    Lili Colby

  • Mytwintees

    Well here is my thought since I have twin boys, that are 5 but were once 2 and we live in Florida and have a boat. NO WAY!!! We have had a boat since the twins were babies and we also have two older children, and I have to say, the boys, now 5, are just getting to the point that they listen and understand consequences. Being on the open water, there are many, many things that could happen and I tend to agree, having less adults than children is just an accident waiting to happen, especially when the children are 2! For example, what if you don’t know the water that well and you ground the boat. You will have 2 little ones that are afraid and your boat is grounded. If another boat stops to help you, which they should, who is going to control the 2 little ones when you and the helper are trying to fix the situation. True story, not with the kids, but did see a boat grounded this past Sunday.

    Enjoy your boat and enjoy your kids, but don’t go alone. My twins truly enjoy the water, but I never remember my husband taking them both when they were 2!!!

  • You are absolutely correct and they are a common safety item for sailors and heavy weather boaters – but adult sailors have the ability to unhook themselves in the event of an emergency. But I admit, I wasn’t thinking about my sailing friends. While cruising around in a pitching sailboat, jack lines and tethers are a lifesaving idea for keeping everyone aboard.

  • ocean

    Tell the boating adult to get a babysitter (on land) for the double-troubles, and go enjoy the off time! Soon enough they’ll be ready for boating, but why risk it when there’s so much to lose at this point? With kids, years pass like hours when it’s all said and done. Good luck, CM- I’ve had these types of family discussions before, too.

  • ses

     One thing that hasn’t been mentioned so far is water temperature.  I grew up in New England, and have lived in the Puget Sound area for almost 20 years now;  If you do any watersports in the northern latitudes, you know that even on a sunny day with little wind, the water is still a bone chiller!  It can be difficult even for an adult with a life jacket on to survive, let alone trying to look after 2 toddlers.   There doesn’t have to be bad weather, simple mechanical or boat part failure, or an on-board fire can quickly sink a vessel- or as we recently saw here in Washington, the wake of another vessel capsized a smaller boat with 5 occupants.  (One dead, four rescued when boat overturns near Camano Island ~ )  Even though there were recreational boaters nearby who came & rescued them, one still died, & a 13 y.o. had to be rescued from under the boat by a USCG Rescue Swimmer.  Granted, they weren’t wearing their life jackets, but even with swift help, there were still tragic consequences.  Imagine this same scenario played out with an adult & 2 toddlers.  Would you want to be the parent having to make the “Sophie’s Choice” of trying to rescue your toddler under boat, or staying with the other child in the open water who you know can’t function without you?  Who’s to say that you’re not the one trapped under the boat with your toddlers left floating in the ocean/lake/river?  I’m not trying to scare people away from bringing their children onboard, just saying that one needs to be prepared.  That also means always having a lifejacket on your furry 4-legged friends when boating; They get cold & tired as well!

  • ses your response if the best one i have read…thanks for putting it together !


    Yes – water temperature is a major player in maritime risk and decision making.   And no kidding, an article on life jackets for dogs is coming up!  Thanks for your comments.

  • Marion Gropen

    I completely agree with your response. And to put that in context, my husband and I own a cruising sailboat. We have a daughter (just turning 11) who has been sailing with us since she was 6 weeks old. And until very recently, she had never been on a moving boat with only one of us. Ever. Under any circumstances.

    Now, of course, she is old enough, and sensible enough to pitch in when something goes wrong (as it always will if you’re on the water long enough!). Until that point, she was with both of us or the anchor or docklines stayed put.