Out in the World
Behan Gifford's family of five traded in the comforts and security of suburbia for a nomadic lifestyle aboard a 47-foot sailboat.I
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.