Advice on Boating with Kids

Little boy at helm of boat

By Brian Gordon, Last updated: 5/25/2021

In today’s digital world, for many children, getting out on a boat is the perfect opportunity to trade a dull, device-driven reality for a refreshing, real world, on-the-water experience.

Part of that experience includes a wealth of learning opportunities that boating offers to kids, which can kindle passions and reveal talents they never knew they had. And of course, for children and adults alike, boating creates memories that can last a lifetime. But before casting off with your kids, a bit of preparation is needed to ensure an enjoyable and safe outing.

Equip your kids with life jackets that fit.

Infants' life jacket

West Marine's selection of life jackets for kids includes models for infants, children and youth. Shown is West Marine’s Deluxe Kids’ Rapid Dry Infants’ Life Jacket. Notice the crotch strap, wide collar and grab handle.

Providing your kids with comfortable life jackets that they will want to wear—and ensuring that they wear them whenever they are on the dock or on your boat is rule number one. To help keep your children safe, manufacturers offer a wide variety of children’s life jackets. When choosing life jackets for children, avoid restrictive, boxy, Type II designs. Instead, select life jackets that maximize comfort and freedom of movement. When shopping for infants, look for a crotch strap to keep them from slipping out of the vest, a buoyant collar to float them face-up in the water and a grab handle so you can quickly pluck them from the water if they fall in.

Outfit young children and toddlers with a harness and tether.

Young children are naturally curious and impulsive. This is great, but can result in a dicey situation should they bolt for your boat’s gunwale to get a better view of a barking sea lion or other marine attraction. The cure for this is to outfit young children with a safety harness and tether that secures them to the boat and prevents them from going over the side.

Protect young boaters against the sun, heat and cold.

Bottle of sunscreen

The sunscreen you select should have an SPF of at least 30.

To enjoy a day on the water, boaters require the right kind of clothing to protect against the elements. This is doubly true for children whose small bodies can more easily get sunburned or take on a chill. Dressing your kids in layers is the answer—so you can easily remove or add garments when children get hot or feel cold.

Protecting kids against sunburn (and the risk of developing skin cancer later in life) is also important. Besides keeping your kids out of the sun (pretty hard to do on a boat!) your best bet is to protect exposed skin areas with sunscreen that has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, daily sunscreen use reduces the likelihood of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 50 percent. To provide additional sun protection, outfit each kid with a hat and a pair of sunglasses—which will up their cool factor to boot!

Eliminate hazards and kid-proof your boat.

Lifeline netting installed on boat

Along with harnesses and tethers for younger children, adding lifeline netting is an easy way to keep kids, headsails, crew and pets aboard. To purchase lifeline netting for your boat, please call the West Marine Special Orders Department at (800)262-8464.

Depending on the type of boat you have, sharp edges can pose a cut hazard to children and adults. For example, exposed chain plates and cotter pins on sailboats have injured many a toe. Wrapping these hazards in self-sealing rigging tape is an easy way to mitigate the problem.

Along with preventing your tackle box or deli sandwich from tumbling over the gunwale into the drink, installing lifeline netting is an easy way to decrease the chance of kids (and adults) from falling overboard. Another measure you can take to make your boat safer for kids is to install child-proof latches on cabinet doors.

Learn CPR and basic first aid.

Of course, being out on a boat will put you and your family out of the immediate reach of first responders. This is why we suggest you learn basic CPR and equip your boat with a first aid kit—one that contains an assortment of items appropriate to the duration of your trip.

First aid kit

Select a first aid kit appropriate to the length and duration of your boat's trip.

Be ready for teachable moments.

Boats offer innumerable learning opportunities to kids. Depending on how your boat is equipped and the age of the child, examples might include how to start an outboard motor, how to read a compass, basic boat handling skills and other nautical tasks such as line handling, knot tying and nautical terminology. Of course, since the boating experience is inextricably tied to the natural world around us, exposing children to birds and wildlife from the vantage point of your boat just might ignite an interest that will last a lifetime.

Delegate tasks to every member of your crew.

As your crew, every member of the family can be assigned a task. For example, when casting off, while one (age-appropriate) family member is at the helm, another can be put in charge of releasing the dock lines, while another raises and stows the fenders on board. Depending on the size and type of your boat, aspiring chefs can be placed in charge of the galley and meal preparation, while another can be in charge of monitoring your boat’s progress on a chartplotter. If you own a ski boat, along with older family members, even young children can become involved as spotters who can be given a flag to wave whenever a skier or other towed person wipes out. And what’s a day out on the water without your favorite tunes? Bingo! The coveted job of DJ won’t lack in volunteers! Overall, when the whole family pitches in, tasks required for the operation and maintenance of a boat reinforce family cohesion and boost the confidence of family members as they work together as a team.

Family washing PWC

Having fun while working together.

Good Clean Family Fun!

As the nautical adage goes, “a clean ship is a happy ship”. This holds true for our little “ships” as well. With cleaning and maintenance performed by children and adults working together, end-of-day chores such as scrubbing the decks and stowing gear become a breeze.

West Advisor® articles: Your trusted source for boating information.

If you are new to boating and getting ready for your family’s first on-the-water adventure, West Marine is here to help with the products and advice you need to gear up right. Following is a list of West Advisor articles to help you prepare for activities that you might like to pursue. For the complete library of West Advisor articles, check out our online West Advisor Articles Page.


Paddle Sports

Water Sports



Clothing and Accessories

Bird Watching and Wildlife Viewing