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The Cruising Nomads On Yacht Totem Visits 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.

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

Eight Years, 26 Countries, 181 Islands | Sharon Henry

While most parents were reading bedtime stories to their kids of faraway, mysterious lands, the Giffords – Jamie and Behan – bought a yacht and with their three young children (aged 4 – 8) set off from Seattle, USA to become the lead characters in their own amazing adventure story.

They are a modern day traveller family, sailing their yacht, Totem, into exotic destinations on a whim.

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.
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

We’ve all fantasised at some point in our lives of 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 back in 2008. For the kids, Niall now 16, Mairen (13) and Siobhan (11) the world became their classroom; crossing oceans, learning different cultures and exploring places many of us will only see on TV.

Travelling The World On A Yacht

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. Their yacht 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 (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 who’s joined them for the Atlantic 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.

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.

Totem has an excellent blog and 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.

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.

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

Hairy Moments On Board Totem

Darrin and I push them to tell us about 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 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 family’s nomadic lifestyle, 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 do develop between cruisers. 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 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 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 adventures with us, it’s clearly a job well done.

Places Totem Won’t Be Returning To In A Hurry

Of those 26 countries and 181 islands visited, 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 (St Helena), the people are amazing.”

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

Ty (left) is an long-term family friend who sails with the Giffords from time to time on 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 homeschooling 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 dominate, 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 Sidney, 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 Totem 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. 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 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.

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 but we’re put off by the safety aspect and our 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.

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, produces the Totem blog and sells photographs.

Totem 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 went whilst sitting 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!

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!

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, steadily ticking off a bucket list of experiences and storybook destinations together as team Totem, cruising wherever the winds take them. Living the dream.

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.
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.

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