How to Survive Sailing With Your Family

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My wife sailing our Sunfish on Glen Lake
My wife sailing our Sunfish on Glen Lake | Source
Glen Lake, coming back with the afternoon breeze
Glen Lake, coming back with the afternoon breeze | Source
Cousins at Glen Lake
Cousins at Glen Lake | Source
Glen Lake
Glen Lake | Source
Late afternoon on Glen Lake
Late afternoon on Glen Lake | Source
Starting the Labatt's Race to Thames River, Ontario
Starting the Labatt's Race to Thames River, Ontario | Source
Labatt's Challenge Grosse Pointe Farms Pier to Thames River, Ontario
Labatt's Challenge Grosse Pointe Farms Pier to Thames River, Ontario | Source
Afternoon breeze on Glen Lake
Afternoon breeze on Glen Lake | Source
Sarah & Andy Finish 1st in Class Double-handed Pacific Cup Race from San Francisco to Hawaii
Sarah & Andy Finish 1st in Class Double-handed Pacific Cup Race from San Francisco to Hawaii
Sarah, John and Andy sailing a Wiley Wabbit to a 1st overall in the 2012 Delta Ditch Run
Sarah, John and Andy sailing a Wiley Wabbit to a 1st overall in the 2012 Delta Ditch Run
Joma and Miles on San Francisco Bay
Joma and Miles on San Francisco Bay
The Next Generation
The Next Generation | Source
Kavi, the next generation
Kavi, the next generation | Source
Willa's First Sail
Willa's First Sail
Family Sailing on San Francisco Bay
Family Sailing on San Francisco Bay | Source

Like golf, sailing can either be a divisive or unifying factor in family life. I guess I'm qualified to write about sailing with the family because somehow I succeeded in interesting my wife and three children in the sport.

Before marrying, I made sure my wife-to-be really liked sailing. In May 1969, she passed the supreme test by being catapulted by an accidental jibe into the icy springtime waters of Lake St. Clair from the boom of my Cal 20. She was sitting on the boom because I told her to keep the mainsail out on the final downwind leg of a North Star Sail Club race.

Fortunately, I was able to jibe and fish her out of the water on the first pass. She came up shivering but didn't complain and actually continued going out with me.

Later that year, over 4th of July weekend, we sailed with ten other couples on Joe Pica's vintage Grand Banks schooner, Kathy II from Detroit to Put-In Bay on Lake Erie. On the way, motoring down the Detroit River everyone consumed Kentucky Fried Chicken, beer and champagne. When we entered Lake Erie all hell broke loose with heavy winds and big waves right on the nose. There were thunderstorms and even a few tornadoes on Lake Erie that day.

Motoring all the way to Put-In-Bay, we took green water a foot deep from Kathy II's bow all the way aft. The electric bilge pump stopped working, and several of us took turns pumping by hand all the way across the lake.

My wife-to-be and I were among the minority who didn't get seasick, and she didn't complain.

We married that year in November.

In 1972 we joined Crescent Sail Yacht Club and became part of a growing Cal 20 one design fleet which raced Sundays, Wednesday evenings and Saturdays. Being in a sailing club as active members of a one design fleet increased our enjoyment and skill. .

Our three children started sailing with us when they were still in diapers. I realized that if they didn't enjoy sailing I wouldn't be able to sail as much as I liked, or that sailing would divide the family, so I consciously set out to motivate them to love sailing.

Here are some observations from my personal experience on how to interest children in sailing:


Step 1: Make sailing fun. When we got to the lake I always gave the kids money for candy, pop and potato chips which they rarely got at home.

Step 2: Avoid frightening children as they are learning to sail. Make sure they learn to swim so they have confidence around water. Require them to wear life jackets (and set a good example for them by wearing one yourself).

Step 3: Provide a small boat children can sail by themselves, e.g., a Sunfish or Optimist. When our oldest was about 7 and the next one was just under 6, we bought them a used Sunfish, good life jackets and turned them loose with it. For several summers we spent a couple of weeks on Glen Lake where our children and their cousins explored the lake, as many as three or four little kids at a time, on the Sunfish.

My wife and I also improved our sailing skills on the Sunfish which is a great boat for children or adults to learn on. It's simple to operate, easily righted and can be sailed by one or two adults or as many as four small children. Also, if you don't pay attention to sail trim the boat stops dead in the water.

Step 4: Keep the children busy. Let them steer as soon as they are able. As soon as our children expressed an interest in steering our Cal 20 and Express 27, we let them steer.

Step 5: Don't yell, and don't try to make your children sail with you when as teenagers they prefer to sail with their peers or other adults. I tried not to yell but wasn't always successful. Our older son, Eric, once jumped off the boat and started swimming toward shore in the middle of a race after being yelled at one too many times. His mother freaked out, and I fumed as we stopped and coaxed him back onto the boat which was by then in last place.

As our children grew older and became more competent sailors, they sailed more with their friends and some of the best adult Snipe and Thistle one design sailors in our club. I did my best to resist making them feel obligated to sail with me and their mother. After a certain age it's better to encourage children to sail with their peers and other adults regardless of how hard it is to give them up just when they become valuable crew or helmsmen.

Step 6: Encourage your children to join the best available junior sailing program. As soon as they were old enough all of our children participated in Crescent Sail Club's excellent junior program. All three went on to become junior instructors and competitive college sailors.

Step 7: Encourage your children to sail dinghies rather than being conscripted into crewing on big keel boats. When my children became teenagers I encouraged them to stick with one design racing rather than crewing on big Mackinac race-type boats. Crewing on big boats can be fun and offers a lot but, in my opinion, is not the best route to becoming a good racing sailor.

One of our favorite family events when our children were young was the annual Labatt's Challenge race 18 miles to the Thames River in Ontario. We raced over Saturday afternoon, had a barbecue Saturday night and raced back on Sunday. My wife and I slept on the Cal 20 and the children in a tent pitched on the shore in the marina.

Our daughter, Sarah won the Snipe Junior Nationals after her last year in high school and was the top girl sailor in DRYA junior sailing. Her brother Paul was a top FJ sailor in DRYA and went on to sail four years at Tufts when Tufts was number one in intercollegiate sailing. Paul and Eric took 10th in the Snipe North Americans on Lake St Clair in 1993.

Paul also skippered our family Express 27 Lorax to firsts in the Detroit NOOD Regatta in 1998 and 1999, with the help of his brother and sister, and he took first in the Express 27 Nationals on Lake St. Clair in 2000. The three of them ended up in San Francisco where they race their own Express 27, Wiley Wabbits and Vanguard 15s. After winning the 2012 Delta Ditch Run Sarah was named sailor of the month by Latitude 38. She was the first woman to skipper the winning boat in the race's 20 year history.

Family racing crews can be dysfunctional when tensions between parents and children or sibling rivalries impede the teamwork required for successful racing. Everyone on board must be willing to accept that the skipper is in charge even when he or she happens to be the youngest sibling.

Family crew dynamics were not always perfect on our boat. Parent-child tensions and crew rivalries arise on most boats, especially when things aren't going well. I've come to accept the fact that all of my children are much better sailors than I am. My main role in the family crew these days had been to move my weight as necessary and to take lots of pictures. That suits me fine.

[This article is a modified version of one published originally in Lake Sailor, July 2000.]

This one from San Francisco takes the prize!
This one from San Francisco takes the prize!

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Comments 6 comments

barranca profile image

barranca 3 years ago

I enjoyed the family narrative about sailing, but what Ralph doesn't mention is how accomplished all his children are in other respects as well. One is an architect, one a lawyer and one is a computer programmer/entrepreneur.


dana Deeds 3 years ago

I really enjoyed your narrative big brother Ralph My first sail was on the Cal 20 anibble then I was off to Peace Corps Brazil n coast Fortalezawhere I built a sail boat reaching out and back wonderful. Now am sailing a Cal 36 in San Carlos Mexico. Thanks Ralph


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

What a nice family activity! I can see you have quite a bit of experience in this area, and I appreciate all your tips for interesting the family in this sport. It's a good thing you made sure your wife shared your passion before you married. : ) I enjoyed this well-written Hub. Thank you! Voted up and shared.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment.


Anthony Maldonado 3 years ago

What a great article. I sail a Cal 20 "It'ldo" out of Grayhaven Marina. I love the time on it with the family but I still have some learning to do. You advise is great. Your writing is not only educational but also entertaining.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment. The Cal 20's a great boat. As you may know, there's a bunch of them at Crescent Sail Club on Lake St. Clair. That's where I really learned to sail racing one design against other Cal 20s. (Crescent is always looking for new members.)

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