Inside A Traveler’s Walls: Totem Sailing Family


Today I would like to re-introduce you to the amazing Totem family. Nearly a year go now, we featured them on our blog and were impressed by their fearless approach to full-time sailing. Well, the Totem Sailing Family was recently interviewed on the Today Show and reached a milestone of 10 years of full-time sailing! So it seemed like a good time to revisit their incredible story and inspire our readers!

I have thought long and hard about finding the balance between becoming global citizens and at the same time not erasing where we were born and how that molded us, but at the end of the day I truly hope my children think of themselves as citizens of the world. A world that they understand, a world they feel they are part of and a world they want to make a difference in. It is inspiring to see other parents that value this type of education and child rearing. Thank you Behan and Mr. Salty for raising global citizens at a time where it seems to be more crucial than ever.

Living as perma-travelers makes us very accustomed to delayed gratification. If something breaks, and we cannot fix it, we do without. ~ Behan Gifford

Well, what can I say without giving it all away? They left “normal” to adventure for a year or two and in the meantime they created a life greater than they could have imagined. A life where family bonds are strong, traditions are plentiful and education equals inspiration and curiosity. Behan even co-authored a book about how they make it all happen. I can’t wait to read it.

The utter freedom. ~ Behan Gifford

So, enough of my chatter. Grab a cup of coffee, a comfy seat and get ready to be inspired.

sailing family

sailing family

sailing family

sailing family

Sailing Family

Introduce us to the people you live with?

We are the Totems, thanks to our boat name, since it’s how you’re typically identified by fellow cruisers. I’m Behan, mama and primary documenter of our lives afloat. Papa Jamie gets called Mr Salty thanks to his deep maritime skills. Our kids Niall (age 17), Mairen (14) and Siobhan (12) have grown up on board. They were 4, 6, and 9 when we moved on Totem, and have since sailed pretty much around the world.

Where are you in the world and what are you living in?

Our floating home is a 47’ sloop (Sparkman & Stephens designed Stevens 47). We’ve referred to her as the floating campervan. There are three “bedrooms” (staterooms), two “bathrooms” (heads), a “kitchen” (galley) and working/living space (saloon). At the moment we’re in the USA for a few months; it’s our first time back as a family since 2009 and it feels a little strange. We began 2016 in South Africa and sailed about 8,000 miles in the first half of the year.

Why did you choose to live in your current arrangement?

From the time we met, Jamie and I always planned to marry our love of being on the water with wanderlust—for a couple of years at least, if not the long-term. Choosing to make the move when we did, with a young family, was motivated by our desire to live a simpler life, closer to the natural environment, to have more time with our children, and raise them as citizens of the world.

What do you do to personalize your unique (less traditional) living situation?

Lots! The boat is a home, if not a house. There’s artwork up—things we’ve created or purchased or traded for. Covers on throw pillows and settees in the main cabin change periodically. We remodeled the galley a couple of years ago and have new counter and cabinet surfaces. The kids add stickers or pictures and more to their cabins. Mementos of places we’ve been and people we’ve met stay present on the walls or shelves.

sailing family

sailing family

Tell us your favorite and least favorite room in your space and why?

I feel no extremes of most and least favorite spaces on Totem, but the main cabin is the heart of family living and for that reason preferred. I suppose the forward head is least, because, well, it’s just a bathroom. Modified to our needs, but probably the least personalized of all spaces on board.

What is the biggest misconception you had about your current living situation before you started living in it?

I don’t think we had misconceptions about living afloat, thanks to logging thousands of miles as a family on vacations and weekends before we moved aboard. But we did wonder how the transition away from a land base would impact us, specifically the extreme downsizing to relatively few possessions. I wrote this six months after we departed on our nomadic, voyaging life: “One change we don’t notice is the radical reduction in things we own. We’re living with less, but don’t think about it much. If we do, it’s usually to lament that we still have too much on board- things get in the way, there’s more than we need. Most of the kids toys were given away or sold off in that last massive garage sale. I believe that having less has brought out new ingenuity in their imaginary play with each other. They have developed incredible concentration, spending hours on a single activity. There is no need to “entertain” them, directly or through screen proxies. We can spend more time doing things together, from exploring a village or beach, to playing cards or doing puzzles and art projects.”

What is the one household item you carry with you every time you move or the one item you cannot live without?

Well, we carry everything…it just fits on a boat! There’s not household stuff that doesn’t come with us, we simply have a lot less of it than we used to. If I had to run from the boat with one ‘household’ thing to save, it would be music. Although I guess that’s enabled by more than one thing!

sailing family

sailing family

sailing family

sailing family

What do you miss most about permanent, stationary, traditional living?

Proximity to long-term friends. Not much we can do about that—it’s a price to pay for our lifestyle choice. I’d love to have the funds to fly home and visit now and then, but we make this work by living on a tiny budget, so that’s never been an option. Honestly? I can’t quite imagine permanent, stationary, traditional living. Maybe someday it will make sense again.

What is the one item your children carry with them to make their unique (less traditional) home more comfortable?

This is the only home most of our kids really remember, and it moves when we do, so… it’s not quite a question that applies for us. We road tripped for a few weeks in South Africa, and the one thing they each HAD to have were their e-readers. Bookworms, all of them.

Do you have a pet joining you for this journey? If so, has this been complicated? Any advice?

For most of our eight years so far, we haven’t had pets. It’s complicated or costly (or both) to enter many countries with a dog or cat. But a few years ago we got a dwarf hamster. Kids adored her and clearance officials were unfazed. She was an excellent wee traveler, with minimal needs and sweet returns; her tiny passport accumulated quite a few stamps before she died of hamster-old-age this spring.

What is your best resource to find items you need for your place?

Living as perma-travelers makes us very accustomed to delayed gratification. If something breaks, and we cannot fix it, we do without. There is typically no convenient option to repair or replace. Boat parts often need to be ordered from afar, and mail service might be unpredictable or unsafe; anyone visiting us invariably brings bits we need (my cousin lugged a very heavy anchor windlass from Massachusetts to Bora Bora one year). For most everyday needs, we’re opportunistic. In South Africa, for example, there was easy access to quality western-style goods at good prices, so it was a good time to ditch the threadbare shirts or outgrown pants and pick up some new ones. When we spent a year and a half in Australia, the relatively high cost of living had us doing most shopping in “op shops” (thrift stores). In the many of the countries we’ve been in, streetside vendors (selling the stuff Americans gave to Good Will, or cheap Chinese imports) are the most common option. But honestly, this question is of Need is thoroughly corrupted by mainstream consumer living and one of the reasons we’ve chosen a different path. We truly need so little, and are used to passing over things that might have been knee-jerk acquisitions in our old life.

sailing family

sailing family

If you could only have one of the following in your home which one would it be and why?

space, natural light, dishwasher or above average internet.
Well, we’re already living without a dishwasher or average internet, and our space is at the extreme of size efficiency… but even having knocked out three out of four, I really can’t imagine a living space without natural light!

If you were to compare your unique (less traditional) home decorating style to a kitchen appliance or gadget what would it be and why?

Uh….stumped. Maybe because we don’t have any kitchen appliances, and only a single powered kitchen gadget?

How do you keep traditions alive for your family in your unique living situation?

Family traditions are the rituals we replay year after year, they’re simply migrated aboard. Birthday parties are cake and games on the beach with whatever kids are nearby, instead of a bouncy house and gift bags (who came up with gift bags anyway?!). The kids know they are king/queen for the day and get to choose what we’ll do, pick out all our meals, etc.—it is anticipated and outlined and revised for weeks in advance, all part of the fun. We’ve dressed for Halloween and mocked up a “turkey” Thanksgiving dinner in almost a different country every year.

How do you decorate for the holidays in your unique (less traditional) home or do you skip it all together?

We have a small stash of decorations, and tend to make new ones annually—snowflakes, paper chains, etc. One wee gingerbread cookie cutter can be the template for a paper chain, the cutter of a gazillion cookies or clay ornaments. Thanks to global homogenization, even when we were in an Islamic country we could find tinsel in December. Some decorations are special parts of our family story, like the little paper Nisse (gnomes from Scandanavian folklore) hidden around the boat around winter solstice. Lots of ideas about holiday celebrations on board at http://www.sailingtotem.com/tag/holidays.

sailing family

sailing family

What is your favorite part about this lifestyle choice?

The utter freedom.

Many traveling families subscribe to the “house is not a home” theory. What is home to you?

Totem is our home, but “home” is more about our family than the physical structure. I don’t doubt we’d remake another place into “home,” too.

What makes you love the place you live?

Ready for a change of scenery? Tired of the noisy neighbors? Curious about ____? Well then, pick up the anchor and get going! Whether it’s across an ocean or across the bay, I love that we can move our home just about anytime we want. Totem is our magic carpet. She’s also our safety net. Some of the best advice we had before buying Totem was to get a boat that could take more than we can. While we take pains to minimize our exposure to adverse conditions, there are times when I am very grateful for just how much Totem can take.

Can home be a person, or an idea?

Absolutely! For us, it’s more about our little family tribe of five people than about the physical home.

Words of wisdom to anyone considering venturing out into the world of unique, less traditional homes?

We had extensive sailing experience before we took off, but it’s not a requirement. We’ve met many people new to boating that simply jumped right in to sailing away. Successful voyaging has a lot to do with attitude: those that make it tend to be the ones who take their time, ask questions, and treat every day as a learning experience. We’ve also met people who approach cruising as more of a parade, and assume that success in other areas of their life coupled with the right sailing books on the shelf will transfer to success as cruisers… but hubris leads to poor decisions that put them into tough situations. Patience, flexibility, and a positive attitude build solid foundations.

Anything else you would like offer?

People who look at our life from the outside and see a sailboat cruising through tropical paradise seem to think that we are on a permanent vacation, as if our daily activities consisted of swinging in a hammock between palm trees on a beach and sipping rum drink. I’ll be honest- we DO have days like that! They are the exception, however, and don’t represent our everyday life. More typically we’re occupied by relatively mundane activities- the basics required to keep our lives rolling along: getting and preparing food to eat, doing maintenance on Totem, getting information about weather or destinations ahead. Other major misconceptions center on our safety. Don’t we worry about pirates? Aren’t we afraid of horrible storms, and big waves? These are naïve questions from people who aren’t familiar with the real risks and how to minimize them. I’m certain that they are at greater risk when they hurtle down the highway on their commute to a box than we are in our lives afloat.

What is next for you? Will you continue to live in your current home or try something different?

I cannot imagine living on land, or in one place! Our mantra has been that as long as everyone is happy with this lifestyle, and we have the physical health and funds to keep going, well…we’ll keep going.

How do you educate your children?

A traveling life has fostered intellectual curiosity and a love of learning that I believe conventional schools squeeze out of many kids. After three years of natural learning on board, our kids spent six months in Australian public schools. They were slotted in at age level and did fine—ahead in some areas, behind in others. They stood out in how they cared about their learning, vs seeing it as a chore. We’re currently helping our seventeen year old evaluate college options. There are myriad ways to successfully prepare kids: Voyaging With Kids includes a chapter on homeschooling that covers three different approaches, stories from multiple family experiences, and an appendix of resources.

How do you make a living?

I know it’s hard to talk about money, and we’re culturally sensitized against it, but it’s a big help for visualizing making the leap- so we’ve gone there. When we started cruising, we lived off our savings. At that time, we thought we might only be nomads for a couple of years, and figured we’d return once they were depleted. But when the money ran out, nobody wanted to go back to our old lives. We stopped in Australia for a year and a half, where I went to work…and learned that I really didn’t ever want to go back to being an office drone! We left when there was enough in the bank to sustain us for a couple of years, and the plan to build income streams from different sources to help sustain us going forward. Currently, those are from:

Selling sails. Jamie was a sailmaker way back when; now he works with cruisers to get the right sails at a good value. He’s able to provide expert guidance to specify and deliver sails to customers all over the world.

Freelance writing and photography. If you have the skills, motivation, and an internet connection—this can be done from anywhere. You really don’t even need a routinely good internet connection, once you’ve gotten started. We’re passionate about the way we live and love to share our story through these vehicles.

Personal Coaching. Jamie and I mentor people who want to go cruising, helping them through the hurdles and questions they have to make the leap. This is the smallest so far, but one we hope to grow. It makes our day to get an email from someone who has found our posts inspiring to help plan their own escape from the wheel of the modern consumer society- I count each of those as a little win for the world.

We bridged between these with rental income from our house, although for years the mortgage cost us more than we could earn. That flipped a few years ago, but it’s not sustainable, so we’re selling the house.

Quote to ponder:

I believe that having less has brought out new ingenuity in their imaginary play with each other. They have developed incredible concentration, spending hours on a single activity. There is no need to “entertain” them, directly or through screen proxies.


Business coaching!

Ready? Wow, was that a lot to take in at once? Cool, right? I never get tired of reading stories about how others are living differently and making their travel dreams come true. It takes a lot of effort, sweat, tears, commitment and teamwork to pull off an adventure like this. And do it for eight years! Do you think they are superheroes? Are they different from you and me? Let’s take that plunge and find out. What are you doing today to get you closer to your authentic life?

Interested in living like the Gifford family? WorldTowning’s services can help make this sailing family story ‘your reality’ and we can do it all stress free. We will be there with you every step of the way.

Learn More

Go adventure,

Inside A Traveler’s Walls is where we feature families living in less traditional and unique homes (tents, boats, camper vans, yurts, flats, etc). If you think you might be one of those families and are interested in being profiled, please contact us for details.


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