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Behan Gifford's family of five traded in the comforts and security of suburbia for a nomadic lifestyle aboard a 47-foot sailboat.
By Kate Wargo
t was supposed to be a two-year trip of a lifetime. Behan Gifford '92 and her husband Jamie quit their well-paying jobs, sold most of their possessions and moved their three young children, then ages 9, 6 and 4, onto a 47-foot sailboat they called Totem.
The trip is now a way of life.
Over the past eight years, the Gifford family has traveled the world: crossing the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans; rounding the Cape of Good Hope; and nearly completing a circumnavigation.
This is no luxury vacation—the family lives very simply and with minimal income. It’s a poverty of choice that has afforded them tremendous freedom, a wealth of experiences and a slower pace of life.
For the first time since it set sail from the Giffords’ former home in Washington state, Totem and its crew made it stateside this summer. After the 72-hour voyage from Bermuda, the Giffords moored in the Mystic River to spend a few months in New England.
On this warm day in August, the harbor is full of fair-weather sailors with sleek teak decks and wooden hulls. Totem hardly fits in.
The Giffords’ boat is affectionately known as a “classic plastic” cruiser. The rub rail is worn and the paint is chipping, but it’s home to them.
“The living space is confined, but we joke that the backyard is very big,” says Jamie, as he gives a tour of the minimalistic living quarters.
Above and below deck, Totem is simply and sparsely furnished, with the exception of a collection of books. Fourteen-year-old Marien and 12-year-old Siobhan share a small cabin; 17-year-old Niall’s cabin doesn’t even have a door.
The Giffords have been living tiny long before tiny became hip.
Yet, Totem is the only home the Gifford children know. They can barely remember what life was like in suburban Washington.
“It’s very weird to be around lots of Caucasians and American accents and everything. Very different from what we’re used to,” says Niall, the oldest and most outspoken of the Gifford children.
Before their adventure began, Jamie Gifford ran his own sail-making company. Behan worked in online advertising, in a position that required her to be available to clients 24/7.
“I left the house before dawn and came back after dark,” she says.
The children were growing up quickly, and weekends were fleeting and tended to revolve around maintenance—grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, laundry. Then Jamie’s mother passed away.
“It made us think about how we were spending our lives. Jamie’s mom was young and was just starting to do all the things that she wanted to do in her life. She had all these plans and never got to do the traveling she wanted to do,” Behan says.
The Giffords met while Behan was on the sailing team at Conn. She loved to travel and he loved to sail, and they’d always dreamed about sailing around the world. So they began planning and saving, bought Totem, and made the decision to homeschool the kids for what they thought would be about two years. They rented out their home and, on Aug. 21, 2008, set sail.
The trip was almost over before it had really started. The crash in the real estate market hit the couple hard, and they ran out of money while crossing the Pacific, just months into the journey. They seriously considered turning back and returning to their old lives. Instead, they docked in Australia for 18 months while Behan restarted her career in online advertising.
“When she got her first paycheck, we had a few hundred bucks in the account,” remembers Niall.
Today, the family stays afloat with a steady trickle of income. Behan picks up freelance work; maintains a blog, Sailing Totem; and co-authored a book, Voyaging with Kids. Jamie has made his way back into sail-making, designing remotely from Totem. Still, the Giffords live below the poverty line, buying only necessities and a few trinkets to remember their travels. They avoid expensive marinas (they prefer to anchor out), and they rarely venture into big cities.
For the Giffords, this minimalist lifestyle is a choice. The kids miss out on many of the opportunities their previous lifestyle provided, but they don’t see it that way. The three teenagers don’t have a TV and are used to spotty Wi-Fi, but they essentially get to live a never-ending field trip, studying the world’s cultures and religions from a perspective one can’t get from textbooks.
“We want to give our kids a different way of looking at the world than they would have had growing up in a small, privileged community,” says Behan. “With all the opportunities, it would have been a great childhood, but not the one we wanted them to have.”
Behan and Jamie design their own curriculum for the children, taking full advantage of local opportunities for learning. While in South Africa, they studied apartheid and its effect on modern politics. In Papua New Guinea, they learned firsthand about the silent genocide of the native population in West Papua. The study of ocean currents, weather patterns and sea creatures are a regular part of everyday life.
“People have accused us of ruining our children’s educational chances,” says Jamie. “But I flip it and say, ‘You guys read the news of the world. We are out in the world.’”
Being in the U.S. has given Niall the opportunity to start planning his next great adventure: college. The Giffords acknowledge that college life will be an adjustment for all of them. Next year, Niall will likely move into a dorm room twice as large as the cabin he has grown up in, and Behan and Jamie will feel the extended financial pressure of putting the first of their three children through college.
Niall may not be able to include any of the usual extracurricular activities on his applications, but he will be able to talk about going on safari in Africa, swimming with sharks in Asia and dodging water spouts in Sri Lanka.
“Even though we are poor, we have a lot of rich experiences,” Jamie says.
Living tiny and traveling together—often spending long periods of time on the open ocean—has given Behan and Jamie the time with their children they lacked when they were working full time. The couple says they have learned more about their children than they ever would have had they continued with their busy lives in Washington.
And while the five are frequently together, their nomadic lifestyle is not as solitary as one might think. The Giffords use technology to stay in touch with new friends and old, and they have found a vibrant cruising community of like-minded adventurers.
“How big your boat is or how much money you have—none of that really matters,” says Behan. “We are all enjoying the same sunsets, chasing the same grouper.”
It has always been about the journey for the Gifford family. They have no master schedule or grand plan; they decide where to go and how long to stay based largely on seasonal weather patterns and finances.
Once this year’s hurricane season is over, the family will sail to the Caribbean. They have no plans to stop sailing.
“Life’s too short,” says Behan. “We get this one shot and we want to make the most of it as a family.”