“This life is so incredibly rich with memories,” says SAILFeed blogger Behan Gifford, who has been cruising with her family for five years.
The Giffords, Behan and Jamie, and their kids Niall, Mairen and Siobhan live aboard a Stevens 47 named Totem. Oftentimes, they are simply known as the “Totem Family”.
When Behan first began blogging, about a year before the Giffords set sail, it was an easy way to share her family’s new adventures with her friends around the world. Now, it has evolved into something more: it’s her way of processing and documenting the nontraditional cruising lifestyle that she and her family have embraced.
Sailing away from the day-to-day was always a dream for Jamie and Behan, who met on the water during a sailboat race in 1988. Behan is originally from San Francisco, went to school at Connecticut College and eventually settled in a Seattle suburb with Jamie for graduate school. She sailed a bit as a kid but really discovered her passion for the sport in college, where she raced dinghies. Behan studied Asian Studies and Chinese before pursuing an MBA and Masters of International Studies from the University of Washington.
In the early 2000s, Jamie’s mother passed away from cancer about the same time their second child was born, and it prompted a change in the couples’ attitude and outlook. That’s when “someday” became a five-year plan to get rid of possessions and to live at sea. The Giffords faced mixed reactions from friends and family. Behan says most people were supportive, even if they didn’t quite understand the draw of constant cruising. In 2008, the Giffords moved aboard Totem, leaving their house in Bainbridge Island, Washington behind.
Prior to cruising, Behan was working in digital media for an advertising company and Jamie co-owned a business where he imported and distributed medical equipment. Now, aboard, they make some money through freelance writing and photography, and some from the consulting work Jamie does for new gear, installations and general technical insight.
“At this point, our finances aren’t based on working while we travel. When we need more money for the cruising kitty, we stop to work—that’s how we spent 2011 and half of 2012 in Australia,” she says. While there, Behan went back to online advertising with a digital media company and the kids tried out traditional schooling for about six months.
Like most cruising kids, Niall, Mairen and Siobhan are home-schooled aboard Totem. But a life at sea provides endless learning opportunities, says Behan. They get to experience the world in a way most children do not, while making friends in every port.
“We just spent a week in Port Dickson, Malaysia, where they reconnected with four kids we met in French Polynesia in 2010—and made friends with two more kids on another boat nearby,” Behan says. “Making friends quickly is a survival tactic for cruising kids.”
The kids keep in touch with their fellow traveling friends via snailmail and email. They enjoy seeing new places and new animals and the lifestyle is easy, exciting and fun. They do miss some parts of land-life, like having a dishwasher, taking baths and visiting with the friends they left in Washington. And though the Internet wasn’t a big part of their young lives before cruising, they wish they could be constantly connected, like their fellow “millennials”.
We caught up with Behan, who’s currently spending a few days on Langkawi Island off the northwest coast of Malaysia.
SAIL: What is your favorite part of living aboard?
Behan Gifford: It is an incredible gift to have so much time together as a family. I suppose we could do that without voyaging, but being in the water is kind of like breathing: it just feeds something, and I can no longer imagine living any other way.
S: What do you miss most about living on land?
BG: I miss my friends from home. We have great friends in the cruising community, but there’s something extra special about those friendships forged over time. And I miss my vegetable garden. It’s been too hard to keep anything alive on the boat!
S: What do you miss least about your former mainstream lifestyle?
BG: The consumer orientation, the false need for things that aren’t actually necessary at all.
S: What is your dream cruising boat and why?
BG: Dangerous question! Money is no object? I’d like a Gunboat and the budget to keep it going. Practically and realistically? Totem really is my dream boat. It’s perfect for our family, a great layout for a growing family, a solid performer, a safe voyager, and she’s our totem—the spirit that watches out for us.
S: What would you say is your favorite destination to-date?
BG: The answer changes, but we always seem to come back to Suwarrow. It’s an atoll in the Cook Islands that offered some of the most pristine snorkeling and memorable experiences we’ve had in five years of cruising.
S: What is your dream destination?
BG: I’d really like to cruise Haida Gwaii. Ironically, it is very close to our home waters, and very far from where we are now! We’d want a heater, though.
S: What has been the scariest moment of living on board?
BG: We’d been cruising for only a few months and were moored in Avalon harbor on Catalina Island. You’re pinned bow and stern by moorings there, so really fixed in one place. A large motor yacht had gone out of control and was plowing through boats in the mooring field, splintering fiberglass and bending steel rails along the way. We had only seconds to process what was happening, and it was literally impossible to get away. The boat missed us by about five feet, and was disabled by harbor patrol just a few boat lengths away. It was horrifying and heart-stopping: we could have lost everything in the blink of an eye.
S: How long do you plan to live on the boat? Where do you imagine you’ll move to if you decide to stop cruising?
BG: Our family mantra is that as long as we’re all happy, and we haven’t run out of money, we’ll keep going. So far, so good. Last April, I had a chance to go back to Bainbridge Island for the first time since we left in 2008. It sure felt like home.
Follow Behan at sailfeed.com/writers/behan-gifford.