Adjusting Your Sails

Keeping your boating lifestyle with special need kids

June 2015 Feature

What started out as a casual lunch date turned into a support group that changed my life. It’s not official or sponsored; it’s just a few girlfriends and I who all have kids with special needs.  

When you first hear the doctor confirm something is technically not as it should be with your child, you start processing hard questions with life-changing impacts. Will you child ever drive? Date? Get married? When my friend Jodi Dennett found her son Elijah was completely deaf when he was a year old, her world came crashing down.

“I couldn’t help but feel the unfairness of it, especially the fact that he would never hear me say I love you,” she remembers. “It took me a year to accept things and get to the point where I started making decisions.”

With my own child, Isabelle, an epilepsy diagnosis changed the way we looked at things.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with boating. Luckily, I’m prepared to tell you. Both of our families love boating and special need kids have different requirements when it comes to the water. When you first get the diagnosis, you handle the big stuff. But then it comes to a point where you adjust your day-to-day life in order to make it all work. In our cases, there was no reason our kids shouldn’t boat. We just had to adjust the way we do it to put safety first.

The Dennetts couldn’t even find a place that would enroll a deaf child in basic swim lessons. John, Jodi’s husband, grew up boating, scuba diving and working at Cherry Creek Marina. Since they couldn’t find outside help, this obvious water junkie took the project on himself and these days Elijah is an extremely strong swimmer for a boy his age. John was in a position to be able to do this, but some families aren’t as lucky.

Elijah is blessed enough to have dual cochlear implants, something this country sadly considers not medically necessary for deaf patients, and he hears a full range of sounds. Since his transmitters aren’t water proof, he has to rely on sign language and reading lips when he’s on the boat.

For Isabelle, she grew up around the water and loves to tube. With her particular case of epilepsy, most times she has no outward signs of having a seizure. But her body shuts down and she is unable to control her sensory motions while her brain is misfiring. This is extra challenging when you’re whipping through the water and expected to hold on to a tube.

Most kids with special needs can enjoy boating. But as the responsible adults involved, it’s our job to make sure we adapt our systems so they are safe. So Jodi and I put together this list of things to consider. I can feel your excitement already. Yay!

  1. Life Jackets. There is never an excuse to have any child on a boat or a tube without a life jacket. Not only required by law, but common sense as well. If your child has special physical needs, an average life jacket may not suffice. Life Jacket-Adapted ( offers an entire line of life jackets in different shapes and sizes for a number of physical disabilities.
  2. Ask Questions. Jodi and I both agree we want our children to have every possible opportunity in this world. We would never take a well-intended question the wrong way so don’t be afraid to ask. My publisher took Isabelle out on his boat last summer and asked all kinds of questions. Does she understand the common boating hand signals? Yes. Will she be able to use them? Honestly, probably not all of the time. You will have to pay more attention to her body language to know what’s going on. With a quick conversation, everyone can be on the same page. If you try and be politically correct, you might not completely understand the situation.
  3. Don’t Exclude Them. Without coming out and saying it, it’s been obvious some people don’t feel comfortable inviting our kids out on the water without us. We know this doesn’t come from a place of judgment or discrimination, but rather fear. With Elijah, Jodi likes to teach people simple sign language to communicate with him. He won’t hear any movement behind him on the water, so reminding him to look over his shoulder to see the boat activity going on is a simple sign and alleviates a lot of stress. He’s a smart kid and quickly adapts to situations once he sees what’s going on. Learning a handful of signs is an easy thing to do to make the situation safer.
  4. Pay Close Attention. While every child should be constantly supervised on the water, it’s even more important for kids with special needs. While some kids run ahead to jump in the water, Isabelle doesn’t do so without me right behind her. She’s a regular kid who gets tired of having her mom in her shadow, but it’s for her own good. Her response in any given situation may be delayed so I keep her close and help her out.
  5. Avoid Peak Hours. When the lake’s starting to hop on a Saturday morning, we’re usually packing up. We hit it early, much to the dismay of avid anglers. With a child who is more likely to fall off a tube, we avoid the business of peak hours. I also put a lot of research into tubes and settled on an Airhead tube called the Tremor. This tube has a multi-level design which allows my child to sit down in it, which I love. 

Boating is fun. Kids are fun. Keeping everyone safe is doable and creates lasting memories.

Photography by Jodi Dennett

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