The author enjoying local sailing.

“Hold onto something, it’s about to get sporty!” I heard Andrew call from the helm as I plated dinner for five crew down in the galley. Right on cue, the dishes went sliding to starboard, and I spread my arms to protect them like a mama bird. The kids squealed with glee in the cockpit. Actually, I think my husband also squealed pretty gleefully as well.

It was July, and we were on our way south from Tacoma to Anderson Island for a little weekend cruise right in our own South Sound backyard. From shore, watching the classic white and green Washington State ferries cross back and forth to Vashon Island looks peaceful and slow, but it’s a lot more thrilling up close. Those vessels move fast, and we just try to stay out of their way. At this point on our weekend jaunt, we had to change course with little warning to avoid one, bringing the wind further aft toward the beam with our sails still set for close hauled. Sporty indeed. We hadn’t added a reef that day and, with a 65-foot mast, our Hunter Legend 43 has a lot of sail area to begin with.

Once the dinner plates were secure again, I popped up into the cockpit to ease the main and give everyone a look of mild exasperation. Safely out of the ferry’s path, we turned back upwind and continued toward our destination, the kids groaning in disappointment that the exciting bit was over. Still, it was an uncommonly windy day for a Pacific Northwest summer, and we sailed most of the way in a steady 12 to 15 knot breeze.

As the sun began to sink low, we gave up on tacking through the Tacoma Narrows and turned on the engine to get to our anchorage before the light disappeared. Oro Bay is a tight squeeze with multiple shoals, and we didn’t care to navigate it after dark.

Tacking through Tacoma Narrows.

We made it to the anchorage just in time for the kids’ bedtime. After dropping the hook, we lowered the dinette table into a big bed for a full weekend of sleepover shenanigans. The kids typically sleep in their own cabins, but this trip was special — they got to bring a friend along. We were all grateful for the extra crew member; yes, even the grownups.

Though we often go on short cruises alone as a family, we’ve found that the children enjoy it a lot more when we arrange for some social time with other kids — either by planning to meet up with other kid boats or by bringing additional kid crew. In our experience, it’s worth the extra effort coordinating plans with other families or finding a friend who will agree to let me take their kid on a boating adventure for a couple of days. When the younger generation is happy, it makes everything a lot easier for the adult crew; something I’ve found to be true in life ashore as well as on the boat.

An interested pal can help get other children up on deck and engaged in sailing.

We really want boating to be a positive experience for our children, so we try to plan our trips with everyone’s interests in mind. Mutual fulfillment is the goal. Having a friend aboard isn’t only exciting for the kids, we grownups also get some satisfaction out of having a fresh set of eyes through which to experience this great lifestyle. Unlike our own children who have “been there” and “done that” — and often spend the trip asking how much longer it’s going to take or complaining about the lack of internet — a kid who isn’t familiar with boating sees everything with a new perspective. They’re eager to have a turn at the helm and to learn sail trim. Their enthusiasm is infectious and is usually enough to lure my more apathetic kids up on deck for some fresh air and sea mammal spotting.

Andrew and I had our own reasons for choosing Oro Bay that weekend. We’re trying to collect enough old local bricks to piece together a homemade heat shield in the saloon where we hope to put a wood stove in the future. Coincidentally, Anderson Island was once home to one of the worst brick factories in the region. Apparently, the inferior clay found on the island, along with an economic depression in the late 1800s, caused the company to stop producing after just a short time in business. From the public shore access landing in Oro Bay, an easy wooded trail takes you across Jacobs Point and to a beach littered with old bricks. We got to scavenge building materials while the kids threw rocks in the water and played on a giant driftwood seesaw. Mutual fulfillment achieved!

The giant driftwood seesaw amongst old bricks.

It’s a good thing it was only a half-mile walk on the trail to get back to our dinghy. That backpack full of bricks was heavy! I felt exhausted by the time we got back, and I had a little scratchiness in my throat. Hmm… Cruising with my family is just about my favorite thing, but the prospect of being sick does dampen the enthusiasm a bit. I took a Covid test… Phew, negative. What a relief! Could you imagine if someone had entrusted their kid to me in a very small space for a weekend, and I had exposed them to Covid?

We took it easy the rest of the afternoon and evening, motoring the dinghy around the bay to check out derelict boats stuck in the mud, swinging around gently at anchor, and watching the sunset from the cockpit. The only noisy neighbor in the bay was a harbor seal pup whose mama left them periodically to hunt.

With the sun low in the sky, it was about time to turn on the engine.

The next day there was no wind, and we decided to motor the long way home. We had never been through Cormorant Passage on the east side of Ketron Island, the place where, a few years earlier, someone had stolen a plane from SeaTac Airport and crashed it. Intrigue awaited! But unfortunately, I missed most of it. I felt tired to my bones. Any and every horizontal surface was starting to look like a cozy spot to lay down and nap. I fell asleep in the cockpit while Andrew motored us back to Tacoma. I thought perhaps I had just slept poorly over the weekend and needed to catch up on rest, strange since I normally sleep like a rock at anchor. This darn cruising cold looked unavoidable.

That afternoon, we tied up in our slip, and I took the kids’ friend up to meet his parents in the marina parking lot, thanking them for letting us bring him along for the weekend. I set off back down the dock to help with the long list of tasks for turning our sailboat from cruising mode back into a liveaboard. Tidy the lines, cover up the mainsail, plug everything back in, put all the stowed items back in their proper places. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help that day, however. The cozy settee was calling to me.

When I still felt “off” the next morning, I took another test — I did have Covid. Thankfully, no one else got sick, and our friend’s parents were very understanding. Believe it or not, in spite of sickness in the height of perfect summer, I think of this weekend cruise fondly. To me, it hits many of our principles of making cruising fun for the whole family.

Even with one parent not at their best, the cruising lifestyle is so rewarding. I’m grateful for every opportunity that sailing season in the Pacific Northwest provides. Life is fleeting, childhood especially, so we try to make the most of it. Though it is not always easy and brings its share of unexpected challenges, cruising with our kids gives us all so much. The experience is particularly rewarding when we go the extra mile to try to make it as fulfilling as possible for our children, with occasional guest appearances by friends open to buckling up their PFD and coming along for the adventure. Like this Anderson Island trip, each excursion is another chapter in our family story.

Five Ideas to Help Your Kids Enjoy Weekend Cruises

  1. Be intentional about kids’ social time. This is my number one recommendation for family cruising, and for good reason. Kids need to be around other kids, it’s a vital part of their development. Cruising tends to be a pretty social activity for adults, but it can take a little more intention and effort for kids. Invite one of their adventurous friends! Get on the local family boating group on social media and share an anchorage with some other kid boats.
  2. Pick destinations that offer something for everyone. For family cruising, mutual fulfillment is key! Though meandering through art galleries and boutiques all day in a quaint seaside town sounds fantastic to me, I think my kids would hate that. Their favorite destinations include candy and toy shops and a playground within walking distance.
  3. Choose easy, kid-friendly meals, especially on travel days. I’m talking about Fritos and canned chili. Don’t spend too much of your quality family time stuck in the galley. And definitely include your kids in the work, where appropriate. Older kids can provide valuable assistance when the sea state isn’t too rough, and even little ones can help get out dishes and bring meals up to the cockpit. I also make cruising extra fun for the kids by buying foods we don’t normally indulge in, for us that’s things like Oreos, kettle cooked chips, and jerky.
  4. Have a plan. A strict itinerary is seldom a smart way to cruise, but scoping out your options for exploration ahead of time can be really valuable. I like to look in local cruising guides for ideas before we go. I try to plan a weekend cruise with a menu of activity options, like a hike, a picnic on the beach, a dinghy cruise, card games in the cockpit, and a movie night. Kids are used to a fast-paced life these days, and slowing down on cruising trips can be a hard adjustment for them. Having a short list of things for them to look forward to can help with feelings of boredom or resentment.
  5. Don’t be too attached to the plan. Are the kids content playing on the beach and reluctant to take your hike? Consider scrapping it to live in the moment. Did you wake up to rain on your only full day at anchor? Bake cookies, get out art supplies, or play a board game. Being flexible and teaching your kids to do the same will help all of you enjoy your cruising weekends more. You may even end up having a more memorable time than you would have otherwise.
Preparation for a good family experience might involve bringing games for fun times at anchor, especially in bad weather.

Samantha McLenachen and her husband, Andrew, live aboard with their children in Tacoma, Washington. They proudly own the newly opened marine repair business, Independent Marine Service.