Adventure Ideas Parenting Sailing

What floats your boat? Are you a water baby?

Family Sailing
Written by Kirstie Pelling

What floats your boat?

Kirstie Profile SmallAre you a water baby? I’m not. Not naturally anyway. Yet some of the best moments of my life have come from my kids enjoying messing about on the water. So just how have how the kids gradually been turning me into an ageing water baby?

Sea Kayaks at Derwent Water

What floats your boat? Sea kayaks at Derwent Water

An uneasy relationship with water

Is an Olympic sailor born and not made? Is it fate or accident that creates a being who can cross the channel in a small boat, alone, without growing a beard or going mad? I often wonder this as I see my daughter slip on a life jacket and drop comfortably into a boat, while I wobble, cling and wince. I’m glad my kids weren’t made in my image. I’ve never been good with water. Or so I thought. Yet over the years their enthusiasm has been infectious…

Sailing an uneasy partnership

Water and me is an uneasy partnership

The coffin boat

Duran Duran’s Rio video spoilt sailing for me at an early age. In my head people who sailed did it from a sunbed with a cocktail in one hand and a canapé in the other. I had no idea the actual business of sailing was so mentally and physically demanding. Or that boats could be so cramped. Or that calculating wind speeds needed a grasp of maths.In addition to this I was brought up on episodes of The Love Boat and Triangle. Sailing was about romance and sunshine adventure. Not ropes and tide tables.

Therefore our first attempt to sail a small yacht, in New Zealand’s beautiful Bay Of Islands came as something of a shock. Kakapo was a little yellow boat. It smelt of wee. Partly that’s because one of the bedrooms was the toilet. The boys’ bed was a kind of posh toilet seat. The other two sleeping compartments, for Stuart and myself were the shape and size of twin coffins. It wasn’t a good start to our week on the sea. But the boys loved it. The freedom of setting sail into the blue, of anchoring for the night on the dark ocean, of setting our body clocks to the wind and the tide simply made them happy. It was thrilling to see their young limbs easily clamber round the boat as though it were a fun factory. To watch them help us steer and play with ropes. By the time we saw the dolphins at dawn I was sold.

Excited kids getting ready to go sailing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Excited kids getting ready to go sailing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The carrot canoe

But babies don’t canoe. That’s what I told Stuart. So why was I tying two of them together (canoes not babies) to make a makeshift catamaran to provide extra stability while we paddled around a bunch of Swedish islands? Why were we pretending the canisters that held our clothes were pirate barrels and that treasure could be found on each island if you knew where to look? Why was I hopping out of the boat to plant clues in the undergrowth before we landed? Because my little pirates were engaged and excited. And the baby? Hannah would only settle down to sleep if we patted her on the back with one of the paddles. And her favourite activity was to try and catch the carrots we had carved into fish and floated from the back of the boat. Babies, it seems, do canoes. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The first moments of Hannah’s life saw her swimming around a warm pool in a glow of pink.

Canoeing in Western Sweden

Canoeing in Western Sweden

The dinghy without a plug

“If you see these barrels come out at any time in the trip, you’ll know the ship is sinking and we’ll all need to panic” the instructors joked at the start of the course. Therefore I was more than a little alarmed when they rolled out the barrels and called out the RNLI on the third day of our family sailing instruction. The prop shaft had become dislodged from the bottom of the boat and we were slowly filling with water. In the middle of the Firth of Clyde. But as the rescue boat arrived I caught sight of the kids’ faces. How could I ever provide this kind of excitement with a family beach holiday? And as we had fish and chips later and recounted tall tales of rescue, I knew they were really animated and really alive. And so was I.

Little girl winching in the sails

The kids just loved learning to sail. Especially the ‘Are we sinking?’ bit.

The family house boat

The canal boat was a disaster area when Stuart’s sister took it on. An uninsulated hulk of steel with no plumbing, light or even windows. But they took it and made it into a home. A second home for my children; a floating home where they run around with their cousins, play on the canal bank and realise there is another kind of life; where people don’t spend their money on sofas and interior design and all of those things that we all know don’t matter. This simple boat has taught my children values, and for that I am grateful. And I have learnt that candle light is flattering.

Canoeing on Lancaster Canal

Canal boat? Still can’t see myself loving living in such a small space!

The enduring banca

Talking of simple boats, we have just been to The Philippines where people sail on traditional outriggers, made of wood and tied together with bamboo. Boats don’t get much simpler than this. Or more terrifying in bad weather.  But once again, my children behaved as though sitting on a boat with spidery legs in a storm was perfectly normal. A day later they happily jumped off them into an unfamiliar world of fish and coral. And I relaxed and joined them.

Island Hopping on bancas off Mactan Island, Philippines

Island Hopping on bancas off Mactan Island, Philippines

A new way

My kids have taught me to love the sea that lies beyond the beach. And to enjoy messing about on river and lake and canal. To conquer my fears of the unknown. Their attitude to water has helped me. Now I know  I don’t need a cocktail and a canapé to get out on the water or to stay afloat. And you know what? I bought a canoe. And a kayak! We are now proud owners of two little brightly coloured vessels. And what floats my boat is really simple. To take them out on our own doorstep, onto one of our local lakes. (We are lucky enough to live in the English Lake District.) Favourite trips so far have been Coniston and Windermere. And for Sport Relief we canoed a chunk of the canal, past my sister in law’s boat, and off to the pub.

What floats your boat?

I may one day surprise the children with a solo voyage. Hopefully without the beard. Have you tried water sport with your kids? Do leave a comment and let us know what floats your boat.

Dinghy Sailing Lagos Algarve

Dinghy Sailing Lagos Algarve

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • We haven’t tried it. I am very nervous but my daughter would love to kayak. I have found a place locally that will now teach us to safely do this- just need to wait for her to come back from her summer visit to her dad’s and we will be able to go. Apprehensive but excited all at once!

    • Hi Sarah, Nothing wrong with a bit of nervousness! Best idea to get some instruction and can be fun to learn together too. With skills and familiarity comes confidence… Eventually! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • Ahhh – the water. I grew up as a water baby. Swimming in the lake at 2 months of age. I have exposed our boys to the ocean and lakes from the time of infancy as well. They are naturals. We have shared many a water adventures together – surfing, a 5 day river trip with canoes and kayaks and we paddle board and lake kayak as much as possible until we are on the ocean again. It is amazing what our children can teach us!!!!!! We just watched the movie Maiden Trip with Laura Decker – worth taking a look. We were living on St. Maarten when she arrived. I am definitely not that brave.
    PS – happy to be back enjoying your posts again.

  • Wow! What an amazing number of water adventures you have all had. Goodness me, cutting your teeth on a sail boat off the coast of New Zealand! If you could manage all this without a natural affinity for water, then I am seriously impressed 🙂 Perhaps there is hope for our land-loving family after all!

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