Mountain Mama: Is it Safe to Take a Four-Year Old Sailing?

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I’m a worrier by nature. Ever since I was little, I could imagine disasters unfolding with perfect clarity. Sitting at the top of a Ferris wheel, I would think about the rusted bolt that was about to give out, sending me careening toward the sticky pavement a hundred feet below. I rehearsed a fire escape plan and slept with my favorite dolls packed in my backpack, ready to grab when the first flames set off the fire alarm.

The other night I woke up in a cold sweat from a nightmare that my four-year-old son, Tobin, fell overboard. I could see his head bob up and down with the choppy waves and turned the boat around to chase his screams for help. I spent the rest of the day reconsidering our sailing trip. I told myself, I am his mama, the one who is supposed to keep him safe. I shouldn’t be doing this.


I reminded myself about the precautions – the harness Tobin will wear that will be clipped to the cockpit to make sure he stays on the boat; the life vest he’ll wear any time he’s on the dinghy or a dock; and the marine lifeline netting that we’ll put around the boat to close the gaps between the lifelines. I’ve even planned for an extra person to make the trip with us, a person whose role under sail with be Tobin-duty.

I made a list of all the other items that I’ll use to keep him safe. There’ll be the U.S. Coast Guard approved swim tube for swimming, the UV swimwear with full sleeves, the polarized sunglasses, sun hats, and sunscreen.

Still, the question looped in my head. Is it safe to take a four-year old sailing?  Every time, the answer is the same. No. It’s not safe. Neither is it safe to drive in a car or canoe down the river or leave him at day care. The more I thought about it, I realized dangers lurk all around our house. The simple act of living is dangerous. I started wondering whether a parent’s job is really to keep a child safe. Perhaps it’s setting the bar too high. As parents, we do our best to make conditions safe enough. We use car seats and seatbelts and avoid driving when we’re exhausted, but we can’t ensure perfect safety.


Safe enough has to be good enough. We do our kids a disservice by attempting to raise them in a bubble, isolating them from risk and discomfort. Resilience and grit are skills built upon uncomfortable experiences. To nurture our kids’ ability to deal with what comes their way, we must let them have age-appropriate exposure to experiences. We must allow them some small freedoms to explore the world on their own terms.

From this vantage point, it’s impossible to know whether it’s safer to stay at home this January than fly to Tortola and sail a boat for a month. I will do my best to keep Tobin safe wherever we go. Instead of dwelling on what might go wrong, I imagine watching the setting sun reflected in his pupils as he stares in awe from the stern. I realize the incredible opportunity to spend thirty days outside with him, conversing with the wind and stars. The more I think about the people we will meet and the places we will see, the more I can’t wait to set sail with Tobin this January!

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