The Island Hopping Baby

A quick trip down island with one of these?  Don't do it!  You're crazy!  Turn back now while you still can, for the love of God!
You know what?  Where there's a will, there's a way.

Cruising with a small child can be difficult for a few obvious reasons, and several others that don’t become apparent until you’ve actually taken on this feat.  Here are a few thoughts we can offer to our fellow sailors contemplating a cruise with a baby, gleaned from our trip down island from St. Thomas to Grenada for the hurricane season of 2011 with our infant son.  The overall lesson we learned from that trip?  A baby aboard makes this lifestyle’s highs higher and the lows lower.  To help make your family’s cruise a golden time you’ll want to remember forever, instead of a nightmare you’d rather forget, read on!

Sanity-Saving Tips for the Sleep-Deprived Sailing Parent

1) Have a morning checklist and delegate tasks.  Every boat and crew is different, but there are bound to be cyclical chores and items that need completion after a night at anchor before you get underway for the day.  Divy them up, no matter how simple each task is, amoungst the adult faction of the crew.  Maybe this sounds obvious, but your brain will likely be fried after a few days of sailing with a child, and you will need all the help you can give yourself to stay on top of things.  If necessary, take turns watching the baby while the other person completes his or her assigned tasks.  And a last-minute “idiot check” is a always a great idea.

2) DO NOT make the mistake of thinking you’ll be able to complete any tasks beyond keeping the baby happy and the boat sailing once you’re underway.  Take the extra few minutes and get them done before you get going!  Apply that sunscreen, brush your teeth, put away the dishes and stow the last-minute items before you haul up anchor, lest you find yourself pulling into the next anchorage sunburnt and foul-breathed, with big mess to clean up down below and a tired, cranky child to contend with.  Makes for a long, crappy evening, take it from us! 

3) Keep your diaper bag stocked and within easy reach of the cockpit.  Prepare for a day of sailing the way you’d prepare for a day on the go with your kid.  You wouldn’t leave home (hopefully) without stuffing a bunch of clean diapers, wipes, snacks and toys into your bag, would you?  Do the same when you’re going for a sail.  Even if you live aboard your boat, don’t assume you’ll be able to use your usual play areas and diaper changing station.  Bumpy conditions can make moving around the cabin carrying your child unsafe, and even if you’re in smooth conditions, it’s so much easier to have everything right next to you, ready to go. 

By being better organized, you have more time to milk those moments of peace and quiet for all they're worth!

Maintaining a Healthy, Happy Squirt Underway

1) This one might be a bit obvious, but even if you don’t have a car, buy an infant car seat to use underway on your boat.  Tie it securely to some fixed point in your cockpit, and orient it in a way that keeps the baby comfortable (shaded, protected from spray, close to you, and wedged in somewhere it won’t move around).  Having a secure place at hand to put the baby during times when you need to take care of something, or during those blessed moments when he or she is sleeping, is essential.

James getting sleepy in his chair on the way to Guadeloupe.

2) Hide that baby from the sun!  As the parent of a sailing tot, the sun is your nemesis.  In the southerly latitudes, the sun hits the earth at a much more direct angle and tender new baby skin can sustain a burn in a matter of minutes unless heroic efforts are undertaken.  All the books say that dark clothing with a tight weave is the best protection, but outdoors in the tropics for hours on end, clothes like that are also an invitation to heatstroke.  Diapers and infant life vests add a lot of insulation, trapping body heat and sweat, and adding long pants and sleeves to the equation, even lightweight cotton, made our baby much too hot. 

We compromised with copious amounts of sunscreen with a high SPF, re-applied every couple of hours, a lightweight brimmed hat, and a short sleeved onesie under the life vest, and we always kept the munchkin in the shade of the bimini.  Whenever it was calm enough underway, we sat with him in the deckhouse for complete protection.  By the time we reached Grenada, the boy was most certainly tanned, but he never burned (unlike us - we were so concerned with protecting James that we often forgot to reapply ourselves.  We need to work on that before we look like a couple of old baseball gloves).

A good hat will be lightweight, brimmed, have a chin strap (hidden here), and help accentuate your baby's adorableness.

3) Water the baby often.  And, if you’re nursing, water yourself.  Sailing can be decieving when it comes to staying hydrated, because in a good breeze, sweat evaporates quickly and you may not realize how much water your body is losing, or how quickly you’re losing it.  If your baby is old enough to use a sippy cup or a straw, offer water or diluted juice or Gatorade often.  If your baby is nursing, offer the boob twice as often, and be vigilant about keeping yourself hydrated so you can still make plenty of milk! 

To be able to monitor how things are going, get a feel for how many diapers your baby wets on a normal day before you leave on your cruise, then count the number he or she wets when you’re underway.  If fewer diapers are getting soaked, redouble your efforts and keep an eye out for symptoms of dehydration:  a dry mouth, groggyness, tearless crying, constipation and (duh) thirstiness.  If you notice any of these, it’s probaby a good idea to take a break in a peaceful anchorage for a couple of days to let your baby rest and catch up.   If things don’t improve quickly, seek medical help.  No sailing trip is worth risking your child’s health!

4) Remember "arrive by five"? Think more “in the lee by three”!  If you’ve read Bruce Van Sant’s excellent guidebook, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South, you’re no doubt familiar with his strident advice to be anchored and put away well before sunset, and to plan your departure time in the morning accordingly.  This is a prudent policy for a whole range of reasons, and we’ve always made it our practice when cruising. 

Everyone needs time to unwind.

When you’re traveling with a baby, we found it’s much better to arrive even earlier.  Leaving super-early in the morning means you’ll have a couple of hours before the heat of the day builds.  Also, you'll have a couple of extra hours of daylight after you’ve anchored to let your child (and you) relax and play for a while.  Chances are your poor baby spent most of the day packed into a life vest, or strapped into a car seat, unable to move around much or do anything he or she finds interesting.  Give him or her some downtime to be a normal baby for a while, crawling around and playing with toys, splashing in a pan of water (supervised, of course), or whatever else your baby likes to do.  It’s only fair, since your baby isn’t the one who decided to go sailing, and it could save you a nuclear meltdown later on.

5) Keep that booty healthy!  We saw the beginnings of James’ first diaper rash starting to take hold when we sailed south from St. Thomas.  It’s quite tropical under a cruising baby’s diaper, and conditions are perfect for skin problems with all that sweating under there.  Luckily, we adopted a simple policy that quickly returned his buns to pristine condition!  It’s elegantly simple and doesn’t cost a thing: bare that rump!  When you get to your destination for the evening (in the mid- to late afternoon, as described above), let your baby play around in the cockpit naked for a while.  A cooling trade wind breeze will feel marvelous on your little nudists’ backside and keep it rash free.  Naked Time coupled with prompt diaper changes should keep your kid’s butt trouble free.


Air that derriere!  Naked Time on SARABANDE.