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Sailors Stories

Schooled At Sea

Educating their three children afloat led a cruising couple to start a desktop sailing business which now funds their voyaging, as Dick Durham reports.

When the sweet-lined sloop, Totem, sailed slowly out of Puget Sound, in America’s Washington State, Niall Gifford, eldest of the boat’s child crew, couldn’t swim. Just eight months later, before he was 10, he had sea-horses literally wrapped around his little finger.

His younger sisters, six-year-old Mairen and Siobhan, just four, were not far behind their adventurous brother and soon all three were snorkelling in the living aquarium of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

For their parents, Jamie and Behan, the gamble had paid off; they had provided a ‘permanent floating field trip’ for their children and the education for a start in life most youngsters can only dream about. 

For the grown-ups it was a case of “giving up comfort and wealth for a sense of freedom,” for the children it was “to live closer to nature, sourcing power through the sun and the wind and raise them to be in tune with the environment,” Behan said.

All well and good, but many people might think that being cooped up on a 42ft sailing boat with three kids would be hell on water.

However, the first thing that strikes you about the Giffords is what a tight-knit family they are. Whether they are listening to the ocean in conch shells; using the boat’s inflatable as a sofa or simply enjoying the sunshine on the foredeck, they are close. Very close.

“That has never changed,” Jamie, 54, tells Ocean Sailor, “the cruising life knits you together. You actually come to rely on your children because they have learned more than books can ever teach. They have learned how to prioritise risk! As just one example, for instance; if a squall comes through our anchorage and the boat starts to drag…without a second’s thought one of them will be up there letting out more cable.” 

The Giffords have spent the last 12 years sailing around the world and home teaching their children en route. “When you have to write about the building of the Panama Canal, it’s so much more interesting if you’ve been through it. If you have to study apartheid in South Africa how much more vivid that is if you’ve spoken to the people who lived under it,” Jamie said.

The Gifford odyssey all began with the untimely death of Jamie’s mother, aged 56, from cancer. “It made us realise there are no guarantees in this life,” said Jamie. The couple had been planning, for many years, to go off cruising, but it had always been ‘someday.’ Someday when the kids had grown up, someday when the mortgage was paid off, someday, one day, never.

“Our ‘someday’ needed a date, not postponement for an amorphous retirement,” Behan, 50, said.

The couple are talking to me from their home which is levitating 20 feet above the quay. Totem, their Sparkman & Stephens’ designed Stevens 47, is swaying in the slings of the travel hoist in Puerto Penasco, a dusty Mexican shrimp fishing town on the Gulf of California. The northerly wind has set in with too much strength to splash the boat. So, they await a new launch date, while hanging in the air!

The jobs they had, the possessions they owned, and the pressures they endured from it all, almost broke them mentally. Jamie became a self-confessed burned-out case. He was a top sailmaker, producing wings for the 1992 America’s Cup challengers, the Vendee Globe boats, and the Whitbread Round-the-World-Race yachts, it sounds fantastic, but was hugely demanding. Behan’s high-pressure job in marketing for a medical import company didn’t help either, or leave much time for nurturing their children: “Most of our time was spent chasing the next bonus,” said Jamie, “we wanted to leave the rat race, shed things we didn’t really need and live minimally.”

“There’s a magic window for the relationship between children and their parents,” said Behan, “and it is, for the children, while the world still centres around their parents.” She admits that her children have missed out on teenage slang, music, language and other trends, but believes they are not as important as the fantastic traveller’s tales they now have to share instead.

They sold up their belongings including a minivan, “all the usual junk,” as Behan puts it, but the 2008 global financial crash meant they could not sell their house in Bainbridge Island, Seattle. They were in negative equity. So, with mortgage payments still to find, they bought their US $190,000 boat, an ideal craft for ocean voyaging with integral keel and skeg-hung rudder, and set off.

Before they started to cross oceans they broke themselves in by making 40-mile hops down the coastline finding an anchorage each night thereby avoiding storms in the open sea where possible.

By the time they reached the Marquesas, Niall’s expertise about all creatures great and small beneath their keel, had moved on from seahorses to giant manta rays; the wingtips of which another cruising couple thought were sharks until Niall jumped in to join them.

“I learned to trust Niall’s judgement,” said Behan, “right from the time he led me back to the little bay in the Sea of Cortez and actually showed me how a sea horse curled its tail around his finger.”

By the time they’d crossed the Pacific and reached Australia they were penniless and obliged to go back ashore and work. They put the children in school and saved for 18 months.

Meanwhile, Behan had been building up a Totem website, www.sailingtotem.com, which offered coaching to other cruising folk. It includes budgeting, planning, boat purchase, routing, weather, maintenance, sail making and most important of all: How to home school children.

Eventually, the site, plus exposure on social media as well as articles and books on sailing, pulled in enough to support themselves, around US $30,000 annually.

“You get one life and you have to take your chance and live it to its fullest,” said Behan.

“We all have different risk tolerances,” said Jamie, “but they must not be based on jaded perspectives. In Australia when we said we were going to sail to Papua New Guinea they told us we would be hacked to death by machete…instead we met people who knew the name of every bird and fish and who showed us how to build dugout canoes…”

Others, when told Totem was bound for South Africa, said it might be dangerous to fly the Stars and Stripes, as America, thanks to the aggressive foreign policy of different administrations, had become hated in many places. “In fact, when we got there, they felt sympathy for us…they asked us why was the US is so violent and racist? I couldn’t answer because I had believed Americans themselves to be open, friendly and generous. We found we could no longer relate to our own country,” said Jamie. 

The latest risk is the spread of Covid-19, which has curtailed their plans temporarily to visit remote Pacific islands. They will head south slowly from Mexico, but without Niall who is now 21 and about to start his third year studying international relations at university in Portland, Oregon. “He does not even have a driving licence,” said Behan, “but he does have a master mariner’s certification to sail a 50-tonne boat,” she added proudly.

His sisters, now both teenagers, will continue their onboard schooling until they decide the course of their lives.

And the house on Bainbridge Island?

“We’re lucky to have someone looking after it for us…if we need it back in our old age it will be better than living under a bridge,” said Jamie.

Sell up and sail, yes, allow a reasonable budget, or better still arrange some income if you can. Don’t believe the stories about the boat needing 10% of its value per annum for upkeep, that’s rubbish and only applies to Superyachts with expensive skippers and crews…BUT DO IT, you’re a long time dead.

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