May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1998


Whatever your vessel, it wouldn't be summer without a
big splash of H20

By Thurston Clarke


How to turn your rug rats into river rats: five rides from tame to wild

Polish up those J-strokes and cross-draws — we're journeying to the heartland

Wind in your spinnaker, a harbor ahead, and a ready-made crew to swab the decks

If staying home is what floats your boat, pull up a deck chair on one of these

Sea Kayaking
To follow the straight and narrow, just secure your spray skirt and grab a paddle

All the right stuff for watersports

When my wife, Antonia, was seven months pregnant, we answered a newspaper ad offering a third-hand sailing dinghy for sale, the same model she had unsuccessfully begged her parents to buy 20 years before. It was suspiciously cheap, and we should have scented trouble when the seller's two young daughters hardly turned from their pink plastic Barbie castle to see the boat go. The seller explained he had given up trying to make his wife and children enjoy sailing and had taken up windsurfing instead. We smiled smug smiles. We live on the shore of America's "sixth great lake" (Vermont's Lake Champlain) and both love water, swimming, and boats; there was no way our children would prefer Barbie.

Our twin daughters were born the next day. Now, when I hear them telling their friends "kayaking is cool," and "we love to capsize the sailboat and swamp the canoe," I recall the many times over the past ten years when we inadvertantly almost turned them into Barbie girls, and smile proudly. For instance, I was sure we'd lost them the day Antonia saw the lee stay swinging in the wind and ingeniously repaired it as I held firmly to our tack. As gallons of water sloshed into the boat, eight-year-old Edwina shrieked with terror. It took 12 months of careful coaxing to get her back into the boat.

I remember an excursion in a large aluminum canoe on a stormy day. The adults at the paddles loved the adrenaline rush of constant near-swamping and the hard work they planned to reward with extra beers, but Phoebe, age seven, experienced a horror of Titanic proportions.

Hired Hands

REI Adventures (800-622-2236) leads a seven-day sea-kayaking trip in the Broken Islands, a group of about 100 islets off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Participants explore narrow channels and inlets and visit rustic fishing villages, then camp on secluded beaches or stay in B&Bs. Dates: June 27, July 25, and August 15. Cost: $995 per person, plus a $15 membership fee; minimum age is 14.

The Chewonki Foundation (207-882-7323) welcomes ages ten and up on a six-day sailing trip off the coast of Maine on a traditional 28-foot wooden boat. Parents and children take turns navigating between the islands, camping each night on a different island. The trip runs from August 16-21, and costs $575 for adults, $475 for children 10-14.

ARTA (800-323-2782) offers four- and five-day whitewater rafting trips on Oregon's Rogue River for families with kids six and up. In between exciting Class II, III, and IV rapids, families can swim and hike. Special four-day family trips depart June 22 and August 11. Cost: $595 for adults, $396 for kids 6-16 (that's a 20 percent discount off the regular kids' price). — Kara Ryan

While I was making these mistakes, I watched instructors at the kids' camp cleverly and steadily give them the skills and confidence they needed to enjoy water sports safely. It's what I've learned from them and my kids that gave us so much family pleasure on the water last summer.

The first lesson may seem obvious: Learn to swim. With good life jackets and parents who want to get out on the water, it's tempting to take children along on activities that turn out to be scary for nonswimmers. For children to have confidence and fun on the water, they must wear life jackets and be strong swimmers. Along with swimming comes good training in the basics, like how to right a boat or rescue a friend when his canoe swamps.

Remember that a child's idea of fun is very different from an adult's. We think it's fun to breathe fresh air, view beautiful scenery, exercise our bodies. Kids think all that is just boring. They like fun and games, like pelting other canoes with old tennis balls as part of a July 4 "war," paddling with their hands, or rowing blindfolded. And they like adventures like exploring an "uninhabited" island.

Finally, keep water activities safely below the panic threshold, while constantly raising the bar. The youngest kids must be with adults at all times. Then let them row or canoe alone, but within a defined area and closely supervised. Next, establish your own family test, like sailing a triangle between three obvious landmarks, after which they may go out alone.

Last summer we enjoyed our controlled adventures on Lake Champlain. We picnicked on islands, found treasure (sea glass) on the beach, and sent a message in a bottle. When we sailed to Schuyler Island, we could not believe that a few years before the girls had hardly dared go in the water. Now that they were strong swimmers, they begged us to anchor so they could swim ashore. I was unsure of the anchor on such a gusty day, so we stayed with the boat. Although they've come a long way and have never been Barbie girls, it will be a few years before they're ready for the Robinson Crusoe adventure of being stranded on an island.

The Hysterical Parent
My kids love the water, but it scares me. I'll be a wreck my entire vacation, worrying that my child might drown.

Whether sailing, sea kayaking, rafting, canoeing, or houseboating, water activities require extra parental vigilance. Brand these letters into your water-safety psyche: PFD. It stands for Personal Flotation Device (or life jacket, as they were once known). And whereas the orange contraptions from hell that you may recall from your youth were about as comfortable as a suit of armor, the current models are no more cumbersome than the down vest you might wear while skiing.

Two things to remember:

1) Be insistent about fit. PFDs that are too large and ride up can't do the job of keeping your child's head above the water. To determine whether your child's is the right size, strap one on your little voyager, grab the arm holes, and pull up. If you can't see your child's face, that means your child's head would be below the waterline in case of a tumble in the drink. Get a smaller size. (The smallest torsoes may require a crotch strap to keep the PFD in its proper place.) Demand PFDs that are Coast Guard-approved. If your child isn't a strong swimmer, go for Type II. It has extra flotation in the front and a collar around the neck for no-fail face-up floating. Type III, for the older and more water-savvy, provides plenty of flotation but more maneuverability. If your water vacation is of the guided variety, talk to the trip leaders about PFDs before even leaving home. If the guide doesn't rattle off most of what you've read here, or worse, insists that your child will be fine in an adult's size small, book yourself on another trip.

2) Wear the PFDs. They do no good stuffed in the gunwale of a canoe or thrown on a beach while the rafters stop for lunch. — Lisa Twyman Bessone

Illustration by Greg Clarke

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