Sailing Totem

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The Gifford family (from left) Behan, Jamie, Siobhan, Niall and Mairen) posing by the Andaman Sea, with their sailboat Totem, in the background, 2014

The Gifford family (from left) Behan, Jamie, Siobhan, Niall and Mairen) posing by the Andaman Sea, with their sailboat Totem, in the background, 2014

Behan and Jamie Gifford set off from Seattle, Washington aboard Totem, their Stevens 47 sloop, in 2008. They’ve been sailing the world ever since, documenting their travels on their blog, Sailing Totem, and raising their three children, Niall, Mairen and Siobhan, who were nine, six and four when they left, all while crossing oceans, exploring landfalls and meeting interesting people along the way.

Do you remember the specific moment when you thought, this is what I’m going to do, and what did you do to make the leap?

Jamie: I remember I was 11 and had just read Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, and thought, this is cool, this is what I want to do. Then I grew up, became a sailmaker and sailed professionally a lot. I got burned out on sailing, which was when I switched into a career and started a family. Then Behan and I had a house and jobs and I wrote it off. It was Behan who said, “Let’s do this, this is what you wanted to do before and it’s great.”

Behan: We’d met sailing. This was always something we thought we’d do someday but we figured it would happen after we retired.

Jamie: As it turns out, you can do it with kids and it’s a great way to raise a family. You’ve got to step into it slowly—there’s a lot of learning.

Things like, how to live together in a tight space and fix the bloody water-maker when it fails…again.

Behan: After Mairen was born we had this really difficult couple of weeks where Jamie’s mom died and Mairen was just 10 days old. These inflection points make you think about what are you going to do with your lives.

Jamie: It makes you realize that life has no guarantees, so, we put together a five-year plan with a date.

Behan: I remember my moment because I was reading Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. I was home on maternity leave with Mairen.

Jamie: We bought our first boat, an old Hallberg-Rassy 352. It had a lot of systems, so that was great for learning. We learned a lot in that process, being on board as a family, all of that, but then number three came along…

Behan: And the boat was definitely too small.

Jamie: After searching for a while, we found Totem in Alameda, California and sailed her up to Seattle.

Behan: The Stevens 47 is a solid blue water cruising boat, it’s got some decent performance, and was in our budget. And it’s got space.

What steps did you take specifically when you knew that this was something you were going to do?

Jamie: We made different choices, financially. We’d make the choice not to go out to dinner or spend our money on other various things. We had good incomes, the nice house, the nice new minivan and all the normal junk. But within a couple of months, we’d sold one house and bought another. It was a great time to cash that out. We bought our first cruising boat, and it gave us a lot of practical experience. We were on that boat all the time from when the kids were just a couple of weeks old. We put a huge map up and we would come up with different routes, and talked to the kids about traveling around the world.

Behan: They would circle places they wanted to go.

Jamie: At the time, we didn’t know how long we’d go for. We’re doing coaching to help out people who have stepped into this idea but aren’t sure how to take the next steps. One of the things that we always point out is that even if you’re not going to be on the boat for a couple of years or so, there are things that you can do now to make this real.

What are two top examples of how to do that?

Behan: Getting the mechanical experience, because so much of cruising is being able to deal with those kinds of issues yourself, and having a financial plan. Getting your debts paid off is a top priority—don’t spend money on a boat right now. Build experience beforehand.

Jamie: Different types of technical training are great, too. First aid courses, and learning weather. Marine forecasts are very, very different.

Do you feel technology has improved the cruising life?

Behan: I think it has done a lot to improve our lives. There were no Kindles when we left, for example, and they have really helped us pare back.

Jamie: Beyond that, there’s Internet access around the world. When we first began in Mexico they were only starting to install their wireless network. For us, the benefits of the Internet have been about online banking so we can manage our finances from anywhere and staying in touch more easily with friends and family, through things like Skype.

Niall, can you relate to kids that are back home and in school?

Niall: Not really. Their lives are completely different, especially in this modern era with phones and all that stuff. Getting back to the U.S., I can’t relate to the land-based kids, you know going to school and hanging out at the mall with their iPhones and all that.

Do you identify as American?

Behan: I very much identify as American. Having been in and out of the country, living as an expat, and going overseas for school, to me it’s easier to process the two. I have had more respect and emotion around our national flag than I think I ever had before.

Jamie: One of the things we get asked as Americans traveling overseas is if we fly the flag off the back off the back of the boat. There are safety concerns and fears they are going to attack Americans, and no. Not at all. But people are confused about America right now. When we were in South Africa, local people asked, “What’s wrong with America? Why is it so racist right now? Why is there so much violence right now?” And honestly, we can’t answer that question because we don’t really relate to it.

Jamie: But these same issues are very much global and we’ve seen other countries with these same elements going on. I certainly identify as American still but I don’t know that my values are aligned with American values because I don’t know what those are. When you spend time going through an island in Papua New Guinea or in Comoros off the coast of Africa where people live a subsistence life, it really makes you think about what being human is really all about.

Indonesia, 2013

Indonesia, 2013

It seems like it’s all the less educated and less traveled people that share those backward views.

Behan: So, let’s get more people cruising! The world will be a better place.

Jamie: Having a multitude of perspectives from different cultures and different societies gives people more empathy towards the human condition in general and a narrow view seems to generate the opposite.

What was the motivation to start the blog?

Behan: It was for myself and as a way of keeping up with friends and family, which is, I think, how most people start blogging. It also became the positive feedback loop that I was missing after leaving my professional life. People would respond positively to the blog. That gave me more motivation.

Where does the name Totem come from?

Behan: When we bought Totem, her prior name was Don’t Look Back and it was the third name. We thought it was okay. But then we found out that it was his divorce boat, and we decided we really had to change the name.

Jamie: We developed some rules for the name on this boat. Four, five, six letters, simpler to say, phonetically easy, you can’t easily misinterpret the name.

Have your kids thought about their future?

Behan: I think one of the things that we’ve given the kids is the chance to see that although we had these professional lives, great salaries and a nice life and all of that, that trading it for financial insecurity and travel has been the best thing we ever did.

Jamie: Once you have started in it, it’s about the choices you make and how you want to spend your time traveling.

Behan: I think that as full-time travel gets more exposure, that’s something that helps people, whether it’s traveling as we do in a boat or traveling on land, to see the different options for working and being location independent. We left with a pocket full of savings, thinking it would just be a few years, and now we have no interest in going back to whatever normal was, and so we are figuring out those little income streams.

Before we end, what have I not asked that you guys are excited to talk about?

Behan: I think the one thing that I want to say is that it’s so scary as a parent to think about your kids’ futures. It’s the most important thing in your world. And it was scary for us to take the leap. And I have, with eight years hindsight, zero regrets. I’m so, so, so glad that we made this choice and made the hard decision and took the leap and I hope that people would think about it for themselves, whether it’s for their own future or their kids. 

December 2017

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