There seems to be a common myth that sailing children are too isolated to develop healthy social skills. I worried about it, too, before setting off for our first sailing adventure. But now that we’ve sailed halfway around the world and lived aboard our 35 foot sloop for four years, I can assure you that the family adventure of a lifetime awaits – one you can share with like-minded parents of like-minded children.
Starting out is often the hardest part. Each of our two sailing sabbaticals started with a month or two of minimal contact with other sailing families. But there are families with children of all ages out cruising in all parts of the world, and you will find them – especially once you get on track with a major cruising route. Gibraltar and the Canary Islands in October/November are two cruiser’s hot spots, as an entire fleet prepares to cross the Atlantic. Panama at New Years is another, when dozens of Pacific-bound sailors congregate at the canal. In both cases, we made close friends with several other families and stayed together for thousands of miles.
Sailing kids play together on beaches and on the boats; they do field trips together and even have sleepovers – just like kids at home. On passages, they chat on the radio (VHF and SSB). All in all, the cruising scene can be much more social than people imagine. Of course, it helps to keep your cruising plans flexible to match other families’ schedules. We seem to go through phases: at times, we have a lot of social contact with sailing families. At others, we might not have another family around, so we focus back on our own family time, which is nice, too.
So the answer is no, sailing children are not too isolated to develop healthy social skills. In fact, I believe that many sailing kids develop better social skills than they do at home, because friends are such an appreciated “commodity.” Our son was very shy when we started our Pacific trip and wouldn’t initiate contact with other children without our help. Within a few months, however, he was comfortable meeting and playing with new acquaintances. My favorite example was in an anchorage in the Marquesas, when I told him that there were kids on a nearby boat. Not to get his eight-year-old hopes too high, I qualified this by saying “they’re a little younger, they’re girls, and I think they only speak French.” He answered: “I don’t care!” and insisted on meeting them immediately. Soon the kids were swimming and playing together like old friends. They quickly learned a few words of each other’s language, and we sailed with that family for several months.
In Bora Bora, we shared an idyllic anchorage with four sailing families and a total of ten children for two weeks. In Suwarrow (an uninhabited atoll in the Cook Islands), there were fourteen sailing kids together at one time, having a blast exploring the reef, doing treasure hunts, and cavorting at cook-outs. There is no language problem for younger kids, who communicate through playing anyway: one can be speaking German and the other Norwegian, but they don’t seem to notice and quickly learn some rudimentary English. English and French are the most common languages among older children. It is true that there are many more pre-school and early elementary age children out cruising with their families than middle and high school age kids, but even the latter seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding playmates.
After a few months of observing harmonious interactions between sailing kids, I started to wonder whether they might end up lacking conflict resolution skills. After all, conflict resolution is a social skill that is constantly called upon in a school setting, where there are inevitably clashes of one kind or another. Sailing kids experience fewer direct conflicts because they usually socialize in smaller groups with more parental supervision. Then I took a closer look and realized that sailing kids develop conflict resolution skills at least as well as (and possibly even better than) their peers back home. They deal with conflict in a different way: by learning to avert trouble at a much earlier point that most school children do. They want to enjoy time with other kids, not get aggravated. Most sailing kids we know are very considerate and accommodating. They see friendship for what it should be: something to be nurtured and protected. If only all kids and adults learned this lesson early on!
Generally, sailing kids are also more adept at mixing with a wide age range of children than “regular” kids are. In a normal school setting, children primarily deal with other kids of their own age. Sailing children learn to socialize with younger and older kids, too. They learn patience, leadership, and acceptance, and they are challenged to find creative solutions to make play across age ranges fun.
Sailing kids also have contact with local children along the way, either in formally or informal settings. It’s often possible to arrange a day / a week / a month at a local school so that sailing kids can experience what it is like to sit at a desk, go to recess, eat a group lunch, and perhaps move to specialty areas with art or sports equipment. In one Pacific cruising season, my son spent a day in a school in Tonga and two weeks at a school in New Zealand. It was a social challenge that he mastered very well and thoroughly enjoyed – although he ultimately concluded that home schooling was better (words to warm my heart!). He also spent three weeks in a summer camp program in New Zealand for more variety of experiences and a different type of social contact. We parents, meanwhile, could spend long days working on the boat. A win-win for everyone!
Alas, many landlubbers seem to cultivate a medieval world view: we are warned, just as Columbus was once warned, that sailing away will be the social equivalent of falling off the edge of the world. But those who dare venture beyond the horizon with their children will find what we did – a new world, waiting to be discovered.