A family of five who left their ‘perfect life’ to sail around the world are still going – ten years, 48 countries, 58,000 miles and $300,000 later.
Behan and Jamie Gifford set off in August 2008 with their three children, Niall, Mairen and Siobhan, then aged just nine, six and four.
The couple decided to embark on their dream voyage five years earlier in 2002, shortly after Mairen was born and they lost Jamie’s mother to cancer.
After saving and planning, Behan, 48, quit her job at a digital ad agency, Jamie, 52, left his medical equipment distribution business and they took the children out of school.
They then loaded their lives onto a 47ft sailboat, which they christened Totem, and set off from Puget Sound, Washington, USA, with $90,000 in the bank.
The close-knit clan, from Seattle, WA, have since completed a circumnavigation of the globe, covering 58,253 miles and visiting 48 countries and territories.
They’ve battled rough seas, extinguished a fire that threatened to destroy Totem and narrowly missed being hit by an out-of-control powerboat.
But Behan said it’s been a “wonderful opportunity to experience the world” with her children – who now firmly identify as “boat kids” rather than landlubbers.
While 19-year-old Niall will soon be disembarking to attend college, Behan, Jamie and their daughters Mairen, 16, and Siobhan, 14, plan to continue the adventure.
Behan, who blogs about their unique lifestyle at sailingtotem.com, said: “We did the stupidest thing in the world and left the perfect life.
“We had high-paying jobs, dual income. It was so perfect and white picket fence it was almost painful. It makes your teeth hurt.
“Then in a two week spell in 2002, our eldest daughter was born and my husband’s mother passed away. It was hard to see those milestones of life happening together.
“My mother-in-law was going to go traveling but she had cancer and literally died within weeks.
“It forced us to think about our priorities and what we wanted, and when Jamie and I met this was something we were always going to do.
“We had been telling people we were going to take our children on a boat and sail and we didn’t know when we would be coming back, and we got some looks like, ‘You’re crazy.’
“When we left in 2005, we felt exhilarated and euphoric. I couldn’t believe it. It was something we had worked so long and hard for.
“It’s such a crazy, different way of life from the outside. On one hand, we have given up so much to do this but we have zero regrets.
“We barely saw each other before and now our family is very tight. We have had the most wonderful opportunity to experience the world with our kids.”
While there is no typical day aboard Totem, the Giffords wake up when the sun rises and sleep when it sets, bedding down in one of two cabins on their floating home.
Behan and Jamie also homeschool their children, teaching them standard subjects as well as devoting time to cultural immersion and hands-on learning.
The kids don’t have mobile phones so there’s no Snapchat or Instagram and they’re “not dialed in to popular culture”, but they spend time relaxing or exploring.
They also chip in with chores, including doing laundry without a washing machine, helping maintain the boat and preparing meals.
They eat local wherever possible – rice dishes in Mexico; roshi flatbreads in the Maldives – and stock up on vegetables and pasta at markets as well as catching fish.
“Before I went cruising, we could load up the minivan with a half dozen bags of groceries and walk them up to the double fridge,” Behan said.
“Now everything I’m finding at markets and carrying it back, but I can only carry so much at a time.
“The everyday tasks of life and maintenance take us a lot longer.”
The Giffords funded their trip through savings and money they raised during an 18-month stint living on their boat and working jobs on land in Australia.
They also freelance on the move and continue to rent out their house in Washington, which covers their mortgage payments, taxes and maintenance.
In total they’ve spent around $300,000 in the ten years since they set off. The average cost of living for a family of five in Seattle, their hometown, is around $122,000 per year.
The family are currently in the US for the summer but will be back on Totem by October and plan to sail to Mexico for a year and a half before returning to the South Pacific.
Despite the fact Niall will be staying behind to study French and economics at college in Portland, Oregon, Behan said the rest of the family have no plans to return for good.
She added: “Everybody has to be healthy and happy. At some point my husband or I will keel over or we wouldn’t be able to finance it.
“I fully expect it to happen at some point. I just can’t imagine it now. It’s been an incredible journey so far.”
To learn more, visit the family’s website and read Behan’s blog at sailingtotem.com.
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