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Summer holidays ahoy! How to go sailing in Europe with your family

Writer Emma Oxley discusses her family's experiences in frequent sailing holidays - what to do and what to avoid...

Posted: 27 July 2015
by Catherine Hudson

Elba's Coast
Split City
Views at Elba, so close to the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Dubrovnik at Sunset
Marina at Elba

"Surround yourself with blue sea, add the zest of adventure and expect enough fun to bond a family. Take a sailing holiday with the children and even one week will become a life-lasting experience. If you have a skipper in the family take a bareboat charter, (an arrangement for the chartering or hiring of a ship or boat, whereby no crew or provisions are included as part of the agreement) if not a skipper can join you. They are recruited for their affability and they can throw in some sailing lessons along the way. 

If travelling during the shoulder season (a travel period between peak and off-peak seasons), that means slightly less predictable weather in Europe, but when it is good the sun shines warmly, the water is delicious, and most importantly there is always space for you in marinas and restaurants, which in summer months (be warned) can be a bit of a squash. Our family of five, with kids from teen to five years old, have spent many holidays sailing; we have cruised the Croatian coast, sailed east to west of Elba and ventured to the Greek Cyclades."

The Journey

"All European destinations mean short flights and fairly easy transfers to the marinas, usually less than an hour. The added bonus of flying into a European destination means there is usually a historic town nearby to visit. We treat ourselves with an extra night in a hotel at the end of each voyage, but it can easily be at the beginning before getting on board. For example, on our trip to Greece we visited Athens and spent a day exploring the Acropolis; the nearest airport to Elba is Pisa, so it was easy to pop over to the leaning tower, and the old town of Dubrovnik has some magnificent medieval ramparts.

For Elba, flying into Pisa is just over an hour to the marina at Piombino where you collect your yacht to sail the 4-kilometres over to the island. At Split we departed from ACI Marina right in the centre of town, so before setting off on the first morning we took a small motor boat across the harbour to have breakfast in a beautiful old piazza. For Greece we flew into Athens and took the 30 minute taxi to Laviron, which is a few hours sailing from the first island, Kea."

The Vessel

"We usually take a 42 or 47 foot yacht, with either three or four cabins. While these are marketed as 10-berth boats, as the kids get older they are less inclined to share, so each require a double to themselves. The most privacy is afforded by a catamaran, with its two ‘wings’ and are up a level in price. If you are new to sailing and in any way apprehensive about the size of a yacht’s interior you will be surprised by the economic design, and when you combine it with the sense of space up on deck beneath a vast blue sky, you might wonder why you need all those rooms and floors to clean at home. As the pleasure of a sailing holiday is spending time above board or in the sea, interiors are less important but a necessity is to have good functioning ‘heads’ and showers. Charter company’s always quote the year of build which will help you ascertain how modern the equipment and facilities are; though no amount of luxury can change the size of your water tank, so unless you want to fill up at every marina, you all become quite ecologically minded."

What we did

"While each destination has its individual attractions many parts of a sailing holiday are the same wherever you are in Europe. Sunny days on the sea are designed for fantastic family fun with races around the boat, bombing competitions and in our case some fruitless fishing off the back. We found some more exhilarating water action being dragged in the yacht’s wake clinging to a rope, or in an inflatable donut from the back of the dinghy. Then of course there’s the sailing; when the breeze lifts the sails it’s all the fun of the fair and much nervous laughter as the boat heels to 45-degrees, the hull pressing white foam out of the blue. 

As far as the different destinations go, Elba was comparatively cosmopolitan, and while you can find quiet bays, most places you stop have a delightful feel of a small resort; there is generally a busy piazza, plenty of restaurants and a few stylish shops. All provides a little sophistication compared to life on board, especially welcome if you have a teenager in the family. 

Croatian islands are much less developed and smaller, you tend to hop between three or four, discovering isolated coves and small village restaurants.  You would usually find the same in Greece, however the October week we went was so windy we kept snug on the small bays around the first island we reached, Kea."

What we ate

"Elba was fantastic for pizzas, pasta and the variety of gelaterias - and this was definitely the most popular dining destination for the whole family. Croatia is all about fresh seafood, and even in the most remote anchorage we found someone keen to cook a delicious dish of squid risotto in black ink sauce, while the Croatian white wine was particularly quaffable. In Greece, by October a lot of the restaurants had closed, which made it a little on the quiet side, but we found a favourite taverna overlooking the small harbour. It was run by an exhaustingly busy woman whose husband seemed to supervise silently from his comfy chair in the corner. The usual fair was deep fried fish and Greek salads which had that zest you wouldn’t find at home and the kids loved it."

Junior Credentials

"The children have all learned something about sailing on these holidays. They can’t drive cars, but they can helm a 40-foot yacht and ‘park’ a dinghy, manning the outboard with confidence. A skill I think they’ll be proud of when travelling the world in later life. They were fascinated to read the Odyssey in Greece, and the Count of Monte Cristo in Elba, actually sailing past that remote treasure-island. We also visited Napoleon’s home in Elba where he lived in exile for nine months. School would approve, especially if you had to explain that extra day you took to see the historic sites in Athens, Pisa or Dubrovnik.

Adventure, sea and a spot of culture - surely the perfect family holiday?"

Essential information

A 42-foot bareboat charter in a typical half term week is approximately £1,400, with a skipper add around £150/day. A popular option for family focussed sailing is to join a flotilla, which often have a great social aspect for the children, and a certain level of support for parent skippers. Website has proved reliably helpful over several years, they offer charters from more than 40 bases in Europe.


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