Why I Built This Kit
The golden era of sailing ships is over, but the romantic allure of going to sea is as powerful as ever. Maybe more powerful, given that these days we don’t have to think much about scurvy, flogging, horrendous food, impressment, bare feet in ice and snow, and an incredibly high chance of shipwreck and death. What’s left is the pure thrill and excitement of casting off into the unknown, and the unmatchable freedom of a ship at sea, subject, for a time, to the laws and pressures of no nation but itself.
If I may sound really old for a moment: summer blockbusters full of pumped-up superheroes and CGI spaceships are all well and good. But to a seven-year-old, the thrill of a great seafaring adventure – one with storms and stern captains, harpoons and hammock beds, creatures and creaking decks – might be even better. Why? Because it really happened once, and it even happened to seven-year-olds. Following that idea, I’ve focused this kit primarily on non-fiction and realistic fiction books, movies, and resources. Don’t worry – there’s plenty to entertain.
Did You Know? Ideas for Sparking Interest
- A sailboat can never run out of gas – if you could catch fish, seaweed and enough fresh rainwater, you could sail forever without stopping.
- During the Age of Sail, ships frequently used sailors as young as seven. They could sometimes be away from home for two years or more.
- The first thing a young “greenhand” would have to do to prove their bravery was to climb to the top of the main topmast – up to 150 feet above the deck – with no safety rope.
- Sailors had to climb the rigging with bare hands, even when it was so cold there was ice on the ropes.
- Before the invention of the train, the fastest a human had ever traveled was by being pulled in a boat behind a whale - they can swim over 30 mph.
- The fastest sailboat in the world today can go 75 mph, faster than a car on the highway.
- Nobody really poops off the poop deck – the word comes from the Latin term “puppis,” meaning the stern or back of the boat.
- The youngest person to sail across the Atlantic alone is Mike Perham, who was 14 years old, and the youngest to sail around the world is Laura Dekker, who was 15.
The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris van Allsburg
OK, I had to sneak in one pure fantasy book, because Van Allsburg perfectly captures the combination of joy and danger that makes sailing so compelling. And, in this case, literally magical.
The Island Below the Star by James Rumford
Polynesian sailors navigated the Pacific centuries before they were introduced to compasses or charts. This story of seafaring brothers details many of the techniques these master mariners used to complete their voyages.
Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter by Richard Platt
Now that Johnny Depp has made pirates mainstream, it’s time for your kid to learn what their lives were really like. Though it’s past the reading level of most age 5-7 children, this book makes a great read-aloud bedtime installment series.
Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
Two sisters spend the summer in Maine, “messing about in boats” among the islands and coves. An idyllic classic.
The Bravest Woman in America by Marissa Moss
A biography of 19th-century lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, who started saving ships as a teenager, and spent a life on the water.
Heroes of the Surf by Elisa Carbone
The dramatic true story of a South American steamship whose passengers, including the young narrator, were rescued by the early American Life-Saving Service.
Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern
Round the horn with Eleanor Prentiss, who in 1851 co-navigated the then-fastest voyage from New York to San Francisco.
Videos and Film
The documentary story of Laura Dekker, a 14-yr-old Dutch girl who sailed solo around the world. Much of it is in English, but kids will need help with the subtitles.
A 1980s PBS series about a marine science expedition to gather information on humpback whales. Yep, that’s a young Ben Affleck learning about oceanography.
World of Discovery – Tall Ships: High Sea Adventure
A 1993 documentary about young greenhand cadets (male and female) learning to crew the tall ship Danmark. Easy-to-follow narration and great footage.
Pure fiction stows away on my list again – this 1990 TBS film is the best version of the classic, and the sailing scenes were filmed on actual boats and ships in the Caribbean. Some kid named Christian Bale stars.
Apps and Sites
Sailors, of course, have steered by the stars for centuries. One of a number a quality star-map apps available, this app is a great accessory for casual stargazing. Ask your kiddo to find Polaris (the North Star) and then see if they can find guide stars that lie due East, South, and West.
American Sailing Association App (Android)
While it’s not geared towards young children, this app works great with a little parental assistance. Includes a compass, an official log book, an ok knot-tying guide, and a dozen friendly instructional videos about sailing. An excellent accompaniment to real or imaginary sail adventures.
- Math Booster:A compass is a great tool for teaching angles, especially if combined with a protractor. Draw a little star in the middle of a sheet of paper – this is your house. Now draw a line representing North. Point your compass due North (0°) – what is the compass aiming at (another house, a big tree, a parked car, etc)? That landmark is “due North” of your house. Mark the item on your 0° line. Now try East (90°), South (180°) and West (270°). If you have a protractor, you can point the compass at any landmark from your house, write down the compass heading, and then draw a line on your map at that same angle. For bonus points, show how you can find the angle between any two items on your map by subtracting the smaller compass heading from the larger.
How To Tie Knots (Android)
An excellent and kid-friendly app that shows each knot in animated steps – much clearer than the old-fashioned diagrams. Users can easily tap to rewind or go forward at their own pace. More on knots below.
NOAA Ocean Service Site
Though they don’t seem to be putting out apps yet, the NOAA Ocean Service is a treasure trove of interesting data for kids (with parental assistance). Try the real-time tide reports, or the incredible assortment of free nautical charts, both modern and historical.
- Math Booster:Nautical charts are covered in little numbers (soundings) that show the depth of the water. Soundings are measured in fathoms, and one fathom is six feet. Ask your little sailor to find the shallowest and deepest points on the chart (smallest and largest numbers). Now see if they can convert those two soundings from fathoms to feet. For bonus division points, see if they can figure out how many times their own height (rounded to nearest foot) would fit into the deep spot sounding. It would take that many kids, standing on each other’s heads, just to get one person up to the surface!
Keeping a logbook is a nice way to add a little adventurous flair to a diary or journal project, and to involve some daily weather observations. You can use an app or order a real log to give it an official feel, though there’s nothing wrong with a notebook and a pencil.
Explain that a ship’s log is an official document, and that it’s important to keep a detailed record of the Captain’s experiences and voyages. They can be real, imagined, or a mix of the two. Each day, your child can start by recording:
- Date and Time
- Sky & Weather conditions - cloud cover, color and shape, precipitation.
- Wind conditions - ask them what they see moving at “mast” (treetop) level.
- Ocean conditions – real or theoretical (inlanders can check the NOAA site for wave size and tide information).
Naturally, a log book is a terrific tool for pushing the imagination. Some ideas for stretching the creative muscles:
Create a sailor identity with your kid. What’s their sailor name? Their year of birth? Their country of origin? Are they a merchant, a whaler/fisher, an explorer, or a pirate? Write up a profile in the log.
Invent and draw some new “mysterious creatures of the deep” that you might encounter on your voyage.
Come up with the name of a new island you’ll discover. What do you think the people are like there? What language do they speak? What do they eat? What will you do when you meet them?
Who are your crew? What do they do on their day off? Are they trustworthy? What do they complain about?
Draw a map of the day’s voyage, noting the locations of storms, beasts, and faraway lands.
Finally, give your Captain a chance to write freely.
Captain’s observations – anything they’d like to write about the day, including what obstacles they faced, how they dealt with them, how they felt, and what they’re anticipating tomorrow.
A good logbook has illustrations, of course, so encourage the Captain to sketch, paint, or use stickers to accompany the daily entries.
Makin’ Hard Tack
A young sailor’s favorite meal. Also known as “dog biscuits,” "tooth dullers", "sheet iron", "worm castles", or “molar breakers,” it can last fifty years if it is kept dry (I am not making this up). Whip up a batch and then try to imagine eating only this and salt pork for a year straight. Here’s a great illustrated online recipe that kids can easily follow, or, you can try this slightly more gourmet preparation:
- Mix in a large bowl:
- 2 1/2 cups of old-fashioned oatmeal
- 3 cups of unbleached flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- In a separate bowl, mix:
- 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk (or 1 cup milk and ½ cup yogurt)
- 3 tablespoons to ½ cup of honey (depending on taste)
- 2 tablespoons of melted bacon drippings (authentic) or butter (less work)
- Then stir the wet and dry bowls together, mix the dough, and form into eight balls of equal size. Roll each one out on a floured surface and poke holes with a fork or chopstick.
- Bake for 5 1/2 minutes at 450°F. Timing is crucial: The resulting "way bread" should be dry, but browned only around the edges.
(From Mother Earth News)
The Boy Scouts keep trying to take credit for this, but everyone knows young sailors tie the best knots. In addition to being occasionally useful, knot-tying is a great spatial-reasoning task and a good motor-skills developer for young hands. The knot app above is a great teaching tool. For non-digital learning, The Klutz Book of Knots is kid-friendly and acts as its own practice board.
Most people just hand kids a rope and have them tie knots in the air – but you can make a knot-tying practice board from some cardboard and colored string in about three minutes. It helps.
Better yet, get some soft, ½” rope instead – it’s much easier for kids to handle, and for them to visualize the knots in, both before and after tying them. It makes a big difference.
Many knots are easier to tie around a railing or a through a ring. Cut both the top and the bottom out of a tin can, and you’ve just made a dual-purpose knot assistant.
Kids are always struggling with shoelaces that won’t stay tied. That’s because the shoelace knot is a ridiculous and terrible knot. I give you the Sailor’s Immortal Shoelace Knot. It’s a slightly more difficult to tie than a normal bow, but with practice it becomes second nature. And it truly does not slip. Ever. Learn it, love it, pass it on to future generations, and tell them you learned it at sea.
Build a Puddle Sloop
You and your kiddo can make a working toy sailboat in an hour or two of crafting. Other than cutting out the hull, little aspiring boatbuilders can help with every stage of this project. You don’t need any tools beyond a knife and scissors.
- Block of Styrofoam or pool-noodle foam at least 7” x 2.5” by 2” (close is fine)
- A drinking straw
- A dowel 11” long (or a chopstick), thin enough to fit inside your drinking straw.
- A little piece of old tarp or painter’s plastic about 9” x 6”
- Wooden tongue depressor or 2 popsicle sticks
- A nickel
- Superglue (or hot glue)
- 2 paper clips
Draw the shape (this will be the overhead view of your hull). Start with a rectangle 7” x 2.5”. Choose a bow and stern end. Starting at 3” back from the bow, draw the curve of the sides as they come in to meet at the bow (perfect shape is not essential – the front of the boat is basically triangular). You can taper the stern ½” in on each side, too, if you’re feeling wild.
Cut out the hull with a bread knife. If you want to get fancy, angle your knife in a bit as you cut, so that the bottom of the boat ends up smaller than the top.
Glue up the weighted keel. Superglue the nickel flat onto to the end of the tongue depressor. If using popsicle sticks, glue two together (for strength) and glue the nickel flat onto to the end.
Make your sail. Put superglue along one long edge of the sail material and roll it around the drinking straw one time to attach. Once that dries, cut the unglued portion of the sail diagonally to make a triangle. The base should be about 4.5” or so.
Insert your mast. Push the chopstick an inch deep into the foam, about 2” back from your bow. Superglue it into the hole for added durability.
Insert your keel. Push the unweighted end of the keel into the bottom of your boat, about 2” behind the mast position. Tilt your keel so that the nickel end is slightly further aft (back). Superglue the keel in.
Hoist the sail. Slide the straw over your mast.
Attach the rear corner of the sail. Poke one paper clip through the corner (it’s called the “clew” if you’re salty) and hook the other clip to that first one. Then poke the second clip into the stern of the boat with a spot of glue. The sail should be able to swing just a little (1”) to each side.
Decorate! Markers are ideal for the hull. Stickers work great for the sail.
Christen your sloop with a little apple juice and push it out into the pool.
Build Your Own Sailboat
No, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. And you don’t need a boatshop, a sudden inheritance, or a year’s sabbatical from work. The Puddle Duck is the world’s simplest sailboat: an eight-foot plywood beauty that can hold an adult and two kids for a day on the lake or bay. And you can build it in a weekend or three (in a hurry, I once built one with friends in four hours – it’s Hull #322 if you want to see for yourself).
- Built of 3 sheets common “Home Depot” plywood and lumber
- Easy to moderate construction difficulty (depending how fancy you get)
- Requires only basic power tools (circular or jig saw, drill)
- Costs $150 - $200 in materials if you keep it simple
The how-to is a little lengthy for this forum, but detailed plans, instructions, tips, and inspiring photos are all available online, totally free. I’ve built many boats with kids, and I can attest that this design is lots of fun to bang together, and offers plenty of opportunity for young children to help with the gluing, hammering, sail-making, and (most of all) painting and decorating. It’s the kind of family project they’ll remember forever. Go for it!
About Josia L.
Lead curator Josia is a renaissance man, and though he’d rather we didn’t mention it, he’s also kind of a genius. His resume defies categorization: 8th-Grade English/ESL Teacher, Dunkin' Donuts graveyard shift clerk, Matlock extra, high-end pants designer (which earned him the 2006 CFDA/Vogue Award for menswear design), historical re-enactor, nightclub salsa instructor, pirate-themed Ebay retailer, rock drummer, and tall-ship crew member are only a handful of the positions he’s occupied, which surely fortified his stint as a resume consultant. Josia now resides in Durham, NC with his wife Maria and is a stay-home dad to their 2 year old daughter.