The Cruising Nomads On Yacht Totem Visit St Helena

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The Cruising Nomads On Yacht Totem Visit St Helena

Enjoying the sunshine at St Helena Island - the Gifford family on their cruiser yacht Totem. L-R: Behan, Siobhan, Niall, Mairen and Jamie.

Jamie and Behan Gifford on yacht Totem with their kids, Siobhan, Niall, and Mairen, the family showing us how to live the adventure.

 

The Eight Year Sailing Trip, 26 Countries, 181 Islands | Sharon Henry

Jamie and Behan Gifford pointed their family yacht Totem at the horizon, way back in 2008, and took their kids sailing around the world. Today they are eight years into an amazing adventure of a lifetime.

Their three young children were aged just 4 – 8 years when the couple bought a Stevens 47 Sailboat, and set off from Seattle, USA to begin the Sailing Totem story. In the since, Niall Gifford now 16, Mairen (13) and Siobhan (11), have grown up travelling to some of the most perfect destinations of the world.

Life is an adventure for the Giffords, a truly modern day traveller family who have become lead characters in their own amazing tale.

Yacht Totem moored in James Bay, St Helena. Some information for boat buffs about Totem, a type Stevens 47 yacht. Overall length 46′-10″, load waterline length 37′-9″, Beam 14′-3″, Draft 6′-0″, Displacement 32,000 lbs, Ballast 14,500 lbs, Sail Area 1,051 sq ft. #sailingtotem

Yacht Totem moored in James Bay, St Helena.

 

We’ve all fantasised at some point in our lives of going on an adventure, escaping the daily grind to travel the world and channel our inner Indiana Jones. It’s the stuff dreams are made of but only a certain few are capable or brave enough to attempt it.

So kudos to the Giffords who did just that. For the sailing kids, Niall, Mairen and Siobhan, the world became their classroom; crossing oceans, sampling different cultures and exploring places many of us will only see on TV.

 

How Long Does It Take To Sail Around The World

It’s a true case of wanderlust which has kept them on the water for EIGHT remarkable years, visiting 26 countries and 181 islands, St Helena being the latest addition to the tally. The SV Totem is now moored in James Bay.

Being fellow bloggers they’ve invited us on board to swap stories. It’s late afternoon and the red billed tropic birds (trophy birds) are screeching overhead, returning from a day’s fishing. As we snack on the flat bread and delicious dips that Behan’s laid out, it’s obvious the Giffords are a tight knit unit. Also on board is family friend and crew member, Ty Anderson, who’s joined them for extra support sailing across the Atlantic.

Inside Totem's sleeping spaces - Niall normally has a cabin to himself with two single bunks. At the moment, however, he is sharing with extra crew member Ty on the Atlantic Ocean crossing.

Inside Totem’s sleeping spaces – Niall normally has a cabin to himself with two single bunks. At the moment, however, he is sharing with extra crew member Ty on the Atlantic Ocean crossing.

Totem has an excellent blog and an active Facebook and Twitter accounts that Behan updates regularly which is impressive considering their limited internet access. She has also written a book in collaboration with two other 'cruisers,' a manual of sorts entitled 'Voyaging with Kids: A guide to family life afloat' that's available on Amazon.

SailingTotem is an excellent sailing blog. Totem also has active Facebook and Twitter accounts that Behan updates regularly which is impressive considering their limited internet access. She has also written a book in collaboration with two other ‘cruisers,’ a manual of sorts entitled ‘Voyaging with Kids: A guide to family life afloat‘ that’s available on Amazon.

 

Behan and Jamie met through a mutual love of sailing so it was always destined to be a factor in family life.

When the family began this adventure the kids couldn’t swim, Niall tells us. “That makes us look like really bad parents,” laughs mum Behan, who in her previous life worked in hi-tech marketing and consulting. However, the change of lifestyle provided the whole family with new opportunities including learning to swim for the kids, who now treat the ocean as their playground.

Hairy Moments On Board Yacht Totem

Darrin and I (land lubbers) are curious to learn from this Gifford interview about any frightening experiences along the way. They fondly regale a ‘scary’ moment when mistimed waves in Mexico flipped their dingy over while landing at a beach (this was before the kids had learned to swim.) Thank goodness for life jackets!

Inside Totem's bow cabin - Mairen sitting in the cabin shared with her sister. The family reads a lot. They also watch movies, the girls favourite being the Harry Potter series. They keep up to date with films and documentaries by sharing hard drives with other cruisers.

Inside Totem’s bow cabin – Mairen Gifford sitting in the cabin shared with her sister. The family reads a lot. They also watch movies, the girls’ favourite being the Harry Potter series. They keep up to date with films and documentaries by sharing hard drives with other cruisers.

Jamie, feet up and relaxing in the living area of Totem. Note the world map on display, 26 of these countries have stamped the Gifford's passports.

Jamie, feet up and relaxing in the living area of Totem. Note the world map on display, 26 of these countries have stamped the Gifford’s passports.

 

Another memory is more recent, rogue waves on the passage from Australia to Papua New Guinea. “It was uncomfortable,” says Jamie, who we get the feeling is not easily ruffled. “The rogue waves were very startling and they came midway up the mast.”

Judging by the rather mild ‘drama’ moments it would seem this yachting lark is not as scary as we had been imagining.

A number of factors sparked the Totem family lifestyle as it is today, a key one being the death of Jamie’s mother. “It really makes you think, ‘what are you doing? What are your priorities?’ Your life is to be lived. She had just retired and had all these plans, that she never got to do,” says Behan, wiping away a tear.

Children On Yachts

The yachting community is small and long-term friendships between those cruisers sailing with kids do develop. Yacht Totem periodically ‘hangs out’ with other ‘kid’ boats and travel together. “Those relationships are very important,” says Behan. So for instance, their Indian Ocean crossing comprised a fleet of six boats with a dozen kids between them. Sounds like fun.

Inside the Totem main cabin - Siobhan sitting at the communications and navigation station. Cruising kids learn from an early how to use a HF radio. Communications includes the Iridium satellite phone system which is used to send and receive emails twice a day.

Inside the Totem main cabin – Siobhan Gifford sitting at the communications and navigation station. Cruising kids learn from an early how to use a HF radio. Communications includes the Iridium satellite phone system which is used to send and receive emails twice a day.

 

Raising a family in the confines of a yacht on the high seas, especially sailing with toddlers, I imagine takes a determined commitment that would scare the life out of most parents. But judging by the well-mannered, engaging and confident children, who are happily sharing their story with us, it’s clearly a job well done.

Places Totem Won’t Be Returning To In A Hurry

What about perfect destinations from those 26 countries and 181 islands visited? Well, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Borneo and the Maldives come out as favourites.

“I sort of fall in love with every place,” smiles Behan. “Those are the ones that stick out. One thing they all have in common, is people. It’s one of the things here, the St Helena people are amazing.”

Ty (left) is an long-term family friend who sails with the Giffords from time to time on Yacht Totem. He has joined them to help out on the Atlantic crossing on this stage of their voyage.

Ty (left) is a long-term family friend who sails with the Giffords from time to time on Yacht Totem. He has joined them to help out on the Atlantic crossing on this stage of their voyage.

Inside the Totem main cabin - Niall sitting at the dining table that doubles up as a desk for homeschooling lessons on board.

Inside the Totem main cabin – Niall sitting at the dining table that doubles up as a desk for home-schooling lessons on board.

 

The places at the bottom of their list prompts a, “hmmm” and a cheeky grin from Niall who waits for his dad to respond. “For me it was the Kingdom of Tonga,” says Jamie.

Behan nods adding, “It was very male dominated, women are very subservient, like they’d have to wear full dresses swimming.”

“But the part I didn’t like,” continues Jamie, “was the expat community; often they are former cruisers and all vying for tourist businesses and they are very unpleasant to each other. It just got nasty in a way that was uncomfortable to be there.”

The other destination bottoming the list, surprisingly, is Australia. “It was the opposite of what we expected,” says Niall. The family took a year out there, sampling life in Sydney, the kids went to school for half that time. “All the Aussie cruisers we know are really great,” Niall explains, “but the people in Australia [we met] were shut in and unfriendly.”

The Cosy Family Home

Below deck on the family sailboat the living area is far more spacious than the external view lets on. It’s noticeable down here how much the wind and tide is moving the boat about on the moorings, making me feel slightly dizzy.

There’s a kitchen with enough room to swing a cat, which merges into a comfortable dining/lounge area, clearly the social centre for the family when sailing Totem across the world.

There are two ‘bathrooms,’ a double cabin in the aft for the parents, a bunk cabin for Niall and a double for the girls to share at the fore. Each has been personalised with stickers, toys and books – lots of books.

It’s nicely homely with every available nook and cranny used for storage or bookshelves. They even have a pet hamster who I’m not keen on so he’s graciously locked away.

Yes their pet hamster is a cutie pie but I still wasn't keen on him!

Yes their pet hamster is a cutie pie but I still wasn’t keen on him!

Stocking up on provision to feed the six onboard requires a little forward planning. Because of limited refrigeration/freezer space Behan is a dab hand at preserving and canning food and showed us samples of carrots, mangoes and chicken.

Stocking up on provisions to feed the six on board requires a little forward planning. Because of limited refrigeration/freezer space Behan is a dab hand at preserving and canning food and showed us samples of carrots, mangoes and chicken.

 

Behan is the Queen of Minimalism and she proudly shows me the cubby hole storing both her and Jamie’s impressively small amount of clothing. I picture my own unnecessarily full wardrobe at home and make a mental note to downsize.

In order to water and feed a boat of six, stocks need to be well organised, there’s no mid-ocean corner shop if supplies run low – like toilet paper. “We’ve never gotten critical on something like toilet paper; we’ve run out of gin, that was tragic!” jokes Behan. “But if we ran out of supplies we get by.”

Skills You Need For Sailing Yachts

Darrin and I have actually considered travelling this way since our first yachting experience last year. It’s a bit of a dream for most people, at some point, I guess. Of course, once we actually thought about the realities of taking a yacht around the world we were quickly put off by the safety aspect and our own lack of sailing experience.

“Yes, sailing knowledge is important,” confirms Behan. “But, there are so many other skills that matter on an everyday basis that people don’t think about. Sailing is 5% of our time; 95% is like this, in a place, and it’s knowing how to do some electrical work, or fix refrigeration that’s just broken down. It’s being able to get hands on and be mechanical.”

“Self-sufficiency,” chimes in Jamie.

The Gifford family on their cruiser yacht Totem, moored in James Bay, St Helena. L-R: Siobhan, Behan, Niall, Mairen and Jamie.

The Gifford family on their cruiser yacht, Totem, moored in James Bay, St Helena.
L-R: Siobhan, Behan, Niall, Mairen and Jamie.

Giffords on Yacht Totem - inside the open plan living space that includes the kitchen, lounge and dining room.

Giffords on Yacht Totem – inside the open plan living space that includes the kitchen, lounge and dining room.

 

What about the cost of sailing around the world? Funding this lifestyle is part of the adaptive skill set.

“It’s a juggle,” says Behan. Initially they lived on savings that ran out two and a half years into the journey. Now, Jamie utilises his expertise in making and selling sails. A timely change in the US economy means the family house back home started earning rather than costing them money. And Behan writes magazine articles, posts the Totem Sailing blogs and sells photographs.

The Totem Yacht Specs

Totem is a type Stevens 47 yacht.

Overall length 46′-10″, load waterline length 37′-9″, Beam 14′-3″, Draft 6′-0″, Displacement 32,000 lbs, Ballast 14,500 lbs, Sail Area 1,051 sq ft.

This type Stevens 47 yacht comfortably sleeps six. It makes 6 gallons of water an hour and generates electricity using sustainable solar and wind power sources.

Going Back Home To USA

After eight years on the water the Giffords are heading home to the East Coast of the USA to reconnect with family and friends – but just for a visit.

Apart from Behan returning briefly in 2013, the only other trip home was in 2009 when the whole family sat out the hurricane season, mooring Totem in Mexico. On that visit they took a two-month road trip in a free hire drive courtesy of redeemed frequent flyer miles. They did Route 66, the Midwest, Canada, New England and National Parks, including Yellowstone.

“Part of it was so the kids would see relatives and parts of the country they hadn’t been,” says Jamie. “It was also in part for perspective, to not forget where we came from.”

Giffords on Yacht Totem - Behan and Jamie's double cabin at the back of the boat. Every nook and cranny is used for storage. Food and books take priority over clothing!

Behan and Jamie’s double cabin at the back of the boat. Every nook and cranny is used for storage. Food and books take priority over clothing!

 

The Totem crew’s return home in 2016 (ETA July) will complete a full circumnavigation of the world which has only taken eight years. “We’re about slow travel,” laughs Behan.

Struck By The Travel Bug

So, how long are the family planning to be cruisers?

“I really didn’t expect it to last this long,” admits Behan, aware that as the kids grow older the lifestyle might be less appealing. But, since their year out in Australia and experiencing six months of school life, they weren’t sold on ‘normal’ life.

“We had this family meeting and it was a unanimous ‘woo-hoo’ to continue! So far everything lines up, at some point it won’t and then we’ll change our plans.”

In the meantime, they’ll continue to be nomads on the sea, steadily ticking off a bucket list of experiences and storybook destinations together as team Totem, cruising wherever the winds take them. Living the world wanderer dream for the rest of us.

Yacht Totem moored in James Bay, St Helena. This type Stevens 47 yacht comfortably sleeps six. It makes 6 gallons of water an hour and generates electricity using sustainable solar and wind power sources.

Yacht Totem moored in James Bay, St Helena.

 

The book, ‘Voyaging With Kids – A Guide to Family Life Afloat‘ co-written by Behan Gifford

 

 

By |2018-09-02T12:50:06+00:00March 15th, 2016|Amazing People, Culture, Sport, St Helena|5 Comments

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5 Comments

  1. […] in love a little with every destination, but this is different: I’m sure that in the future when people ask us about our favorite stops, St Helena will be on the shortlist. But before going too far into why we love it so much- here’s […]

  2. Patrick G Henry March 15, 2016 at 8:28 am - Reply

    Beautiful and amazing family of core values they are one of the best I’ve ever met. My best wishes on your continuance journey.

    • Saints March 24, 2016 at 1:47 am - Reply

      They truly are an inspirational and cool family living the dream!

  3. Shirley Gough March 15, 2016 at 3:25 am - Reply

    Beautiful boat and happy sailing to the family on the Yacht Totem! Thanks for sharing!

    • Saints March 24, 2016 at 1:41 am - Reply

      Thanks Shirley. They’re on their way over the horizon once again – what a life!

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