The Cruising Nomads On Yacht Totem Visits St Helena
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.