James Downs, associate professor of history and American studies, will spend the 2015-16 academic year studying medical anthropology at Harvard University.
They sold their furniture, gave family photos to parents to store, rented out their house on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, and quit their jobs.
Then they took the big leap.
Behan Fravel Gifford ’92, her husband Jamie Gifford and their three children set off in a 47-foot sloop for a years-long trip down the West Coast, across the Pacific and then to who knows where.
They moored in the Sea of Cortes, inside the Baja California peninsula, waiting for hurricane season to pass. In March they’ll cross 2,800 nautical miles from La Cruz, Mexico to the Marquesas at the eastern end of French Polynesia.
The Giffords don’t know exactly where they’ll go after that or when they’ll come back. Those decisions, said Behan, will depend largely on the needs and interests of the children – ages 5, 7 and 10.
To call this the trip of a lifetime misses the point. “This is not a vacation. It is a lifestyle choice,” said Jamie.
The couple met locally: he grew up sailing in Mystic; she was on the sailing team at Connecticut College. They always dreamed of cruising but their plans were deferred by work – he started a business manufacturing and distributing medical equipment for children with special needs and she was an account director at Razorfish.
And it was easy to stay in the Puget Sound area. She has family there, the water and mountains were beautiful, the kids were settled in and the house was comfortable.
“But you kind of wake up one day and – whoa! Where did it all go,” Jamie said. “You start to realize that nothing’s permanent. Why not do this now? Things might not work out later.”
It took six years of planning, rearranging lives, selling possessions, finding the right boat, divesting Jamie’s business and saving money. But the family moved onto Totem on May 31, 2008, and set off Aug. 21 of that year.
Giving up possessions – jobs, furniture, cars, toys and especially books – was initially hard. “But you kind of get over this hurdle and then it’s easy,” Behan said. “It’s very liberating.”
After the San Francisco Bay, the family sailed to Santa Barbara and Ventura before heading to Mexico. Their days are taken up with chores – from doing the laundry to scraping barnacles – watching fish, snorkeling, tracking the weather, and enjoying the passage of time. They have a microscope and tools for basic research.
The kids are learning about the world in part from the seas they sail and the ports they visit. Behan said they are grasping the interdependence of different organisms and elements in ways they never could in a conventional classroom. They understand waste in a new way, for example, because it’s hard to get rid of garbage on the boat. They also have to conserve water and have learned they don’t need as much “stuff” as they used to have.
“It’s some of the best education we can give them right now,” she said.
Visit the Giffords online at www.sv-totem.com.
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