Introducing Kids to Boats, Part 1 – A Sense of Command

December 24, 2011

Getting children interested in boats can be as easy as finding a safe setting and letting them explore it on their own – in a decent boat. We take you to the frog pond and talk you through a few ways of introducing kids to good boats in a setting that will build their confidence for the bigger water later on. For kids, it’s not about instruction, it’s about a sense of command.

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There's an endless number of good courses and camps that can teach kids to sail.  Check out your local waters and ask them how they teach.  If the program teaches rowing first, and tries to create a sense of command early on, we'd recommend going with that program.  Racing can be fun for some kids, especially as they get older, but an introduction to boats and the water through the eyeglass of competition isn't exactly going to foster the deeper pleasures available to the kids.  And don't get us started on the poor qualities of the Optimist Pram.

The WoodenBoat School here in Brookin, ME offers an exceptional course entitled 'The Elements of Seamanship'.  Kids are welcome, especially during the School's Family Week.

The Nutshell Pram
The boat you see in this video is the Nutshell Pram, designed by Joel White (with input from Maynard Bray) 30-plus years ago.  Kits are available for this boat at the WoodenBoat Store.  The plans are also available there, without the kit.  We recommend the 9 1/2 foot Nutshell, rather than the 7 1/2 foot version for a variety of reasons --- more spacious and load-hauling capacity, etc.  It's a great little ship, and three of us (Maynard, Bill and Steve) own one ourselves.  After thirty years of heavy/hard use along the rugged Maine coast, Maynard's and Bill's still look brand new with a new coat of paint every two or three years.  Steve's Nutshell MAYA is the one you'll see throughout this site, and from which a bunch of the footage in the videos was taken.

Novelty Value
In this video, you hear reference to the 'Novelty Value' experienced by kids who are new to boats.  This was a concept we picked up from Wayne Roberts in New Zealand.  Wayne was keen on kids experiencing novel situations that were fresh and new to kids (and to adults), and then watching their raw pleasure upon the new discoveries.  You might also want to check out 'A Boatbuilders' Schmee' that features Wayne.

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– [Narrator] Because we love boats, it’s easy to think our kids will love them too, and that we can simply put them out there, and off they’ll go, seamlessly. Well, it’s usually not that easy.

– Hey Henry, what do you think about rowing so far? Is it something you’d like to do?

– Not so far.

– Not so far? Well, let’s see if we can work on that. You know, a little boat like this? In not too long, you’re gonna be able to take your mum and dad’s little rowboat and row over to Chateau, and run around with Cy and have a little picnic. It’s a great way to get yourself out on the water and to an island that’s

– Well this is my first time doing it.

– That is why we’re at the pond. Nothing like being in a little comfortably enclosed pond like this where we can be right in the water with you to learn. It’s a lot better here than down on the, you know, when it’s rough and windy down on the harbor and there’s boats everywhere? There’s no boats to hit, there’s no waves to go over the top of, there’s no wind to contend with, so we’re gonna see if we can’t show you how right here, okay?

– [Narrator] So here are a few things we’ve learnt from old-timers who’ve taught lots of kids to get started. First off, it’s not really about transmitting information, it’s more about striking a spark. The feel of oars as they bite into the water, however tentatively; the whiff of adventure; a sense of command. The novelty value for the student is as high as it gets. And for the parent, tuning in closely to watch that novelty value in a child can be just as thrilling.

– You wanna grab those oars over the top. Let me see your hand. Like that, okay, and then there you go, flip your hand over just like that. And the idea is that you put the oars in and pull ’em, and then you have to get those oars up and out of the water and then you pull again, alright, just like that. So let’s take one lap around and I’m gonna have my hands on yours and then when we come back around, you’re gonna take it from there. So just nice, you don’t have to pull too hard, just nice, little, short strokes. You’re doing it!

– [Narrator] A safe setting allows grown up instructors the chance to dial back their presence.

– Okay, you ready? I’m gonna let go.

– Well it seems like, with a lot of things, they have to do a certain amount of windmilling. You know, feel like they’re in control of the boat before their mind really can wrap around finessing it.

– Yeah, it happened more when there was no supervision and nono presence in the thing. There was a lot of windmilling, quite a lot of failure on the way to getting over that.

– But it’s quite a challenge with whatever means you use. Being able to boat all the way yourself with nothing but a pair of oars and get yourself from here to there. Style doesn’t enter into it at that point. Controlling your location and reaching your objective is what those brain cells are working on. Another couple of days of Cyrus pulling on those oars and windmilling, he’s gonna wanna move to the next step.

– Then, it’s all about the fun of going somewhere. That sense of command and the feeling of adventure can happen in minutes with oars and can take years with the complexities added under sail. In the struggle for mastery, and in the taking of command, we give kids a pathway towards self-reliance. They learn that actions have consequences, and they learn that dreams can hold actual destinations, all in the simple act of pushing off from the dock. Last winter, we planted the seed that our kids could go off on their own to an island following summer. Imagine the independence the idea engendered. Imagine how it transformed the way they began to think about boats and the water.

– No, I’m putting the pasta in.


– They wanna boil it.

– Have you ever boiled pasta?

– Okay, I have the worstcards.

– I wanna build sailboats, I guess.

– When they arrived on their island, and it was theirs by then, it wasn’t an hour before they began creating stories and games with just about any little thing they could get afloat.

– I guess when you’re in the boat, you’re in your same boat a lot, you get used to it more. You know how it works. Well it kind of helped, instead of the adults to tell you, you could kind of figure it out yourself. If I learned by myself, like learn something, then I know it a little more because I’ve done it. And the grown-ups just say “Good luck!”

– One! Two! Three!

– You did?


10 Responses So Far to “Introducing Kids to Boats, Part 1 – A Sense of Command”:

  1. Suzan Wallace Suzan Wallace says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve just finished restoring “Twinkle” for the next generation of grandkids. She is over 40 years old and has thousands of sea miles as a dinghy to my parents “Aries” Bayfield cutter. Part of my Dads legacy, he took pride in doing exactly what you shared in this video with all us kids and grandkids. Now its time for me to continue on the tradition~ _/)

  2. Avatar Tom Keefe says:

    What a great adventure for a kid! Brings back fond memories of going off with my brother on a sailfish all over New London, CT harbor and just…figuring it out! Seeing the kids in this video going from some apprehension to pure joy and pride of accomplishment is heart-warming!
    Every kid should be so lucky!

  3. Avatar Robert Stumm says:

    A truly beautiful video. Thank you.

  4. David Tew David Tew says:

    I have to agree about Optimists.I had one for my second pram, as part of a sailing program fleet, and much preferred the “sense of command’ described by Wayne, rowing the first pram wherever I wished and exploring shallows, coves and beaches ‘all the live long day’.

  5. Avatar James (Jim) Hart says:

    My grandson has started sailing Opti’s in Larchmont, NY. He’s an avid reader and I’d like to get him a couple of books on sailing that will continue to inspire a love of sailing and boating in general; any suggestions? . (mom’s not a boater)

    • Steve Stone Steve Stone says:

      Hi Jim. Check out the Mariner’s Bookshelf located in the OCH Library (link in the menu above). Lots of suggestions there. If he’s not too old, reading Swallows and Amazons at night has been inspiring for many a kid.

  6. Avatar Walter Allan says:

    Steve, Eric, Maynard, & Bill,
    This is my absolute favorite video… Why do we love boats is like asking why do we love kids?
    Thanks for putting this Holiday video package together.

  7. Avatar Terry Smith says:

    Another jewel of a production. Fun and informative in its own right, and brings back memories of the thrill of independence — rowing myself around in a dinghy when my age was probably still in single digits.

  8. Avatar Doug Wood says:

    That warmed my heart.

  9. Avatar Martha White says:

    Lovely! And I loved the little after remark at the end. So beautifully done… I only wish Joel could have seen it.

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