On the Job

How to Keep Kids Entertained on Charter

26 April 2021By Claire Griffiths
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Written by

Claire Griffiths

Claire Griffiths is Dockwalk’s contributing editor in the Mediterranean. She fled to the sunny south of France from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Claire has a background in journalism for national and regional UK press and a career in political and corporate PR prior to that. Claire’s hobbies include eating, sleeping and dancing at inopportune times. She tries to avoid sheer drops and Olympic bobsled runs. Email Claire at claire@dockwalk.com

Having kids on board the yacht can mean a lot more work for crew — but with a few solid entertainment ideas, crew can ease the way into a successful charter experience.

Although many children on charter come with nannies or mannies attached, crew are inevitably left “holding the baby” at some point, even if that baby is a hulking teenager. As Capt. Philip Pennicott of M/Y Francesca points out, the MYBA Charter Agreement clearly states that crew are not responsible for children’s entertainment or conduct, but this not always the case. As a charter captain on an under-30-meter charter boat, Capt. Pennicott used to play it by ear, many times suggesting the parents go have an evening together without the kids, while he babysat. “Always good for the tip,” he winks.

According to Stefan Offner, head of hotel operations and chief steward on M/Y Bold, his raison d’être is precisely, “To keep the kids busy, entertained, and as far away from their parents as possible so that they can chill.” How to feed and please children depending on their age is the question we’ve put to some kid-friendly onboard experts.

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How To Feed Kids

Georgia Rex is a rotational chief stewardess and the creator of an accessible online interior course for junior stews: www.superyachtstewardessing101.com. For contractual reasons, she cannot disclose her current boat. Rex is surprised at how healthily three- to seven-year-old children eat — “I’ve seen little kids eat more veggies in one trip than some engineers will eat during a season!” 

Chief Stewardess Helena du Randt on M/Y SOLANDGE says, “In my experience, small children on board have eaten very basic meals, many times just derived from the parents’ main meal. When doing a buffet, it’s a good idea to always be sure to have basic foods such as pasta, spag bol, small sliders, fries, and pizzas that they can nibble on.”

Rex is surprised at how healthily three- to seven-year-old children eat — “I’ve seen little kids eat more veggies in one trip than some engineers will eat during a season!”

For children eight to 11 years, Chief Stewardess Rex says breakfast pancakes are fun. “For lunch and dinner, pasta is a big one, nothing too exciting in my experience,” she says. For du Randt, however, she has had kids this age requesting caviar and others wanting pizza. If it’s only one child, they normally just eat what the adults would, adding a mocktail or milkshake to the meal. 

Pre-teens are still into milkshakes, pasta, and lighter food, according to Rex, while du Randt and Capt. James Kennedy of M/Y Lady E suggest Mexican, Swedish evenings, or banana split stations. “This age group is generally a little easier to please and it’s a similar story with older teenagers, although be prepared for midnight snacks — anything from burger, pizzas, fries, or steak.”

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Capt. Kennedy doesn’t particularly notice food choices by age, but overall it tends to be European (pasta and pizza) and/or American (burgers, fries, pancakes) along with a combination of what the parents are eating. Chief Steward Offner has a different version of events: “If the parents want them to eat healthily, that is what we try to do. Most of the time, the kids are expected to eat the same meal as their parents.” But — and there is a but — “It’s not always easy to find the balance between making or giving the kids what the parents want them to eat,” he says. The upset kid who won’t eat what he is given always wins, and according to Offner, kids get their fast food in the end. “So my best advice to a chef is cook both and have both prepped and ready. Ready at any time within fifteen minutes notice to make pasta, pizza, nuggets, and fries at any time of the day,” he says.

“It’s not always easy to find the balance between making or giving the kids what the parents want them to eat,” he says.

“The best scenario is when the whole family has the same dietary requirements. [It’s] rare but [it] happens,” says Relief Capt. J. Guy D. Fraser. “Today, families tend to make healthier choices than ten years ago. The worst is when the kids have had zero discipline. I’ve witnessed young children sending perfectly good food back to the galley in front of the parents, because they want fries and reheated McDonald’s chicken nuggets and every meal was a drama from breakfast to dinner.” 

Small children tend to eat with their nannies, usually separately from the guests. This works really well, says Rex (depending, of course, if you have the stew power): They are free to roam around as they please, and are not expected to sit at the table for hours. “I don’t mind the children eating with the adults if it is planned beforehand and if a buffet is set up to accommodate this,” says du Randt. “It does make it slightly easier rather than having another meal set up for kids and nannies, especially if it’s at the same time as the main meal service.”

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By the time kids reach age eight to 11, they still spend time with nannies but are starting to chat with crew, are very inquisitive, and keen to discuss their hobbies. “I’ve had some good chats about telescopes and space. They like to pop into the bridge or pantry for chats,” says Chief Stew Rex. 

If there’s just one child in that age group, du Randt prefers them to eat with the adults: “If they eat with younger children, they normally request completely different food (closer to what the adults are eating), which then makes it a bit of a nightmare during service times. They also don’t normally seem as cheeky when eating with adults compared to when they are eating with their nannies.”

By the time kids reach age eight to 11, they still spend time with nannies but are starting to chat with crew, are very inquisitive, and keen to discuss their hobbies.

She continues: “If you are only a small team, then it is always great when everyone eats together so you can get the meals done in one go.” Teens (age 13-15), in du Randt’s opinion, tend not to stay around the adults, and they are generally happier hanging out with the crew and interacting with the deck team when doing watersports. “Every now and then, they make an appearance where the adults are, but normally can’t wait to get back to doing their own thing,” du Randt says. 

So as older teenagers (age 16-19), what do they do? “This really depends if they have friends with them or not,” says Rex. “If they bring a friend, then they won’t hang out with the adults. They also spend a lot of time alone — generally on phones, reading, studying, or watching TV.” Says du Randt, “A few times, they order food at different times and will eat in their cabin or in front of the TV instead of sitting down for a meal. Older teenagers don’t often seem to hang out with the adults, also depending on how many of them there are.”

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Creating Fun Experiences for Kids

How, where, and when kids have fun also varies by age and whether they’re with adults. In Capt. Kennedy’s experience, kids and adults mix for meals, particularly at breakfast and for off-the-vessel excursions. “Watersports are a combination of together and separate — Baywatch days and beach competitions are all inclusive and then certain types of activities create a divide — diving, spearfishing, wake surfing, etc.,” he says. “[Game] nights and quizzes are all-inclusive.”

“Ideally, the family that stays together, plays together, so it’s ideal when everyone is on the same page,” says Capt. Fraser. “Meals are a good time to plan activities: I see the younger families that charter today do tend to interact together. The best scenario is the family that decides the night before who is going kite surfing or wakeboarding, swimming, snorkeling or diving, horseback riding or golfing, hiking or shopping. Crew can arrange activities for younger kids. The teenagers that are actively into watersports are usually keen to do that at any opportunity.” This has to be managed in advance.

“Ideally, the family that stays together, plays together, so it’s ideal when everyone is on the same page,” says Capt. Fraser. 

When they’re not in the water, Chief Stewardess Rex keeps small children and kids age eight to 11 busy with puzzles, games, fancy dress, sticking, and gluing — making crowns, tiaras, and kites with lots of glitter and stickers. Movie afternoons on board are always popular, with blankets and lots of popcorn (and lots of mess!). “The small kids take such an interest in seeing us do tasks like squeezing fresh orange juice and they love pressing the buttons.” 

Capt. Pennicott of M/Y Francesca knows something about pressing buttons — “Whenever I had kids on board, I would give them a separate safety briefing, explaining that I needed to know where they were at all times, the areas they were not allowed to be in, and tell them that if they wanted to touch, pull, twist, or flick anything, they had to ask first,” he says. “In return, they would be given a chance to drive the boat; this nearly always worked.” 

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The older kids, too, are inquisitive about the crew and their work. “I remember once when the seventeen-year-old daughter came into the pantry and chatted to me for two hours, generally interested in what we did on board,” says Megan Higginson, second stewardess on board a 41-meter yacht. 

Kids’ cooking classes or making pizza for their parents’ lunch (or pizza with candies) works for Chief Steward Offner and his little darlings. 

“We once did a long passage with small children on board,” remembers du Randt. “This one little boy got so attached to one of the deckhands that the deckie had to spend all his time playing Xbox, swimming, watching movies — everything the little boy wanted. It was easier to just sacrifice the deckhand and keep everyone happy.” 

“So many times, we have set up and planned our whole day around a kid’s activity just for the kids to be in a bad mood and all your hard work is down the drain,” du Rand says.

Chief Stew du Randt recommends not spending too much time worrying about small children. “So many times, we have set up and planned our whole day around a kid’s activity just for the kids to be in a bad mood and all your hard work is down the drain,” du Rand says. “I would suggest having things ready to just go in the moment.”

Although hiking isn’t usually a top 10 activity, it’s amazing how far young kids will go with a bit of creativity and patience, says Capt. Fraser. “If hiking fails, then snorkeling in shallow sandy water off the beach works well to get them started. Setting up a beach excursion where the children have to find clues to a hidden treasure is an old favorite. Or a picnic, preferably on a secluded, pristine beach where younger children can swim and snorkel, beachcomb for shells, or ride in a kayak or SUP.”  

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Rex lets older kids go to the local markets with the chefs. They can pick their own food, buy what they fancy, and then get in the galley on board to help make lunch. Capt. Kennedy finds video footage shot during the day is popular for screening in the evening and Capt. Fraser suggests taking photos of peculiar deck fittings and getting kids to find them. Crew and guest sports events — for example, egg-and-spoon races around the deck, or synchronized swimming — are a good way of getting crew, adults, and children together. 

Capt. Kennedy is also a games man: pirate captures, mystery solving, Cluedo-style murder mysteries (age sensitive), as well as dress ups, Nerf wars, and water balloons — his list of entertainment activities is arm-long. They’re all specific to parents’ outlines and the childrens’ comfort levels. “Usually by day two, we have a good idea of where the boundaries are,” he says.

Rex lets older kids go to the local markets with the chefs. They can pick their own food, buy what they fancy, and then get in the galley on board to help make lunch. 

Another trick that works for Capt. Fraser is when towing children and teenagers on toys like the banana, he likes to safely flip them off into the water, but takes his time circling back and arriving a touch downwind to make them chase after the banana. “The swimming really tires them out fast!” He starts off teaching kids to waterski on the beach with a pair of skis or wakeboard, and a tow rope pulled by someone (very fit) running along the beach. Once the child has mastered being pulled in very shallow water (ankle deep) then it’s time to get them in the water hanging onto the barefoot bar on the side of the ski boat. “This method works one hundred percent better than trying to teach a student to waterski or wakeboard by yelling instructions at them from a distance of 60 feet behind the tow boat,” he says. “If you’re adventurous and happen to be tied up stern-to with trees nearby, setting up a flying fox is also great fun.” 

Chief Stew Offner on M/Y Bold says you can’t beat a game of good old-fashioned hide and seek. Another tip is to swot up on your playing cards, backgammon, and chess moves to entertain the older kids, suggests Rex.  

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The Key to Charter Success

Offner and Rex recommend just being prepared and to enjoy the fun. “It’s always great if you have one stew who loves kids — that way they can take charge of them and be the go-to gal/guy,” says Chief Stewardess Rex. “There is always at least one stew who doesn’t particularly love kids, so if you can manage the work this way, everyone will be happy.” Keep a good selection of arts and crafts paraphernalia, plastic floor covers, and a table you can set so as not to ruin furniture. Remember, teenage kids may not speak to you for the first few days; it just takes time for them to get used to you.

Rex also suggests keeping the pantry extra tidy and well-stocked as it’s a second home for teenage kids who’ll go rummaging in the cupboards for snacks. Be warned: “This age group can also sometimes get a bit cheeky, especially around alcohol. If they want some and the parents have said no, be prepared to stand your ground against the teens!” 

“There is always at least one stew who doesn’t particularly love kids, so if you can manage the work this way, everyone will be happy.”

Engaging kids early on and gaining their confidence is one dependable way to endear them (and their parents) to the crew for a more enjoyable charter, says Capt. Kennedy. And Capt. Fraser’s mantra is: “firm and fair.” Check with parents on the dos and don’ts like snacks and beverages. Interior and deck crew can see early on during the charter if the parents want to participate with the children or not. If they do, it’s time to get creative to arrange activities for everyone. “If the parents look like they just want to sip on the Rosé, then that’s the time to keep the young ones as busy as possible,” says Capt. Fraser. “Be prepared, always be early — if the children are happy, the parents are happy!” says Higginson.

Getting the right information on the preference sheets well in advance is paramount, advises Capt. Fraser. The best charter brokers have a multi-page format that covers everything. “Some preference sheets I’ve seen from various brokers are useless. I make a point to call directly the principal charterer and/or PA to be sure to get as much accurate information as possible, specifically food allergies, such as [their] favorite morning cereal for the children (remember that changes year to year).”

Even if you often would very much like to wring their scrawny little necks, says Capt. Fraser, “The hours with kids are rewarded with trunks-full of funny stories and bucket-loads of wonderful experiences getting children, teenagers, and families hooked on having adventurous fun on/under/in and by the sea. It’s pretty much priceless.”

This feature originally ran in the April 2021 issue of Dockwalk.

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