Sailing around the world for eight years with three kids taught us to live without structure

Life as Laboratory
Life as Laboratory

Behan Gifford and her husband Jamie had it all. Three young children, a lovely home on an island near Seattle and two well-paying professional jobs. So why did the couple leave it all behind and decide to live aboard a sailboat for eight years?

“It’s just so easy to be caught up in the pattern of life and what you’re supposed to do next, whether it’s a house on the beach or another car. It’s so easy to grow your life in a direction that you feel like your life is expanding, but maybe it isn’t necessarily,” said Behan.

So they decided to leave and grow their lives in a new direction. In their years sailing the world, they have seen more than 30 countries and sailed every ocean on the planet. It has also been a voyage of self-discovery, they say, a choice of lifestyle that has presented countless challenges—and rewards—and that has tightened their bonds as a family.

The Giffords are part of a growing, but little-known community of people called cruisers. (A 2011 survey placed the global total number of cruising boats at 10,000.)  “Cruising requires that you learn to live without structure. And some people are really afraid of that.”  While many cruisers are couples or individuals who have given up the rat race to live a life-long dream, some are families who spend months, even years at sea or living on a boat in distant lands.

“It’s about the absolute sense of freedom. You get to explore the world and bring your home along with you,” says Lin Pardey, an author and 45-year veteran of the cruising lifestyle who, with her husband Larry, literally wrote the book on it. “But cruising requires that you learn to live without structure. And some people are really afraid of that.”

On board the Totem. Jamie Gifford with his three children Niall (17), Siobhan (12) and Mairen (14)

In many ways, it’s been a big experiment for the couple. There’s little available data to establish whether pulling kids out of their schools and plying the seas is going to be good for them. Behan says her primary concern was making sure that their children could adapt to and even thrive in such an unusual environment.

For decades, there has been a community known as third culture kids, defined as individuals “who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture.” They are often the kids of diplomats or expats working for companies overseas. Some studies have shown that third culture kids actually have a higher rate of “cultural intelligence,” or ability to relate effectively across cultures. Another shows a far higher rate of college degrees among children brought up abroad. Conversely, third culture kids can suffer from a prolonged adolescence, where forming lasting relationships into adulthood is difficult.

But cruising is in many ways different and perhaps more challenging. The cruising community rarely stays in one place for more than a few months, and while they sometimes will rent a home in a foreign city, the die-hards live aboard their boats full-time. Behan and Jamie say they know several families who gave up early on the cruising lifestyle, that the lengthy time together in such close confines became too much to endure.

The Gifford’s say that their kids have managed the experience well and that it has given them tools that they will carry into adulthood. Take friendships. Since they are so often on the move, making new, lasting friendships can be a challenge. But Behan insists that the cruising community is large enough that there are ample opportunities for their children to meet other cruising kids and form long-term bonds with them. It just takes more work to build relationships and then to stay in touch. They say they frequently ask the kids if the life they are choosing works, and no child has so far wanted to return full-time to the US.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful life,” she says.

Not a vacation

Behan is quick to point out that these last eight years have not been a vacation. The couple has often had to work while at sea or while aboard the boat in a port somewhere. Money has been tight. “People assume we’re independently wealthy, when we actually live on a budget that’s below the poverty line.” To make ends meet, Behan writes for magazines and Jamie, a professional sailmaker, has had several consulting projects. The couple says they have managed to survive on around $25,000 a year. Behan says that the lack of long-term financial security has been her greatest worry.

“That’s actually the first question we usually get,” says Behan. “How much does it cost? I tell people, if you plan and live frugally, it does not have to be something for millionaires. People assume we’re independently wealthy, when we actually live on a budget that’s below the poverty line.”

They didn’t enter into their new life as paupers. They began planning in 2002, after Jamie’s mother died of cancer. Planning meant saving as much money as possible and developing the technical skills to manage living on a boat for long stretches. It also meant waiting until their kids were old enough to understand the responsibilities and dangers of living at sea. Their youngest child, Mairen, was four years old when they set out. She says she has no recollection of life before then.

The couple left Seattle in 2008, selling off most of their belongings and putting their home up for sale. They hoped to use the money from the sale to help finance the adventure, but the economic downturn devalued their house so much that they decided to rent it out. The rent covered the mortgage, but not taxes or insurance, so they had to delve into savings, something that frightened them. Behan was working for a software startup in Seattle and Jamie ran a small medical device import business. They say they had saved about five years worth of income to go cruising, although the plan was to be gone for just two or three years. “I feel like I have a much better idea of what the world outside the US is like, and I’ve really found that it’s ok to be different.” When they finally decided to make the leap, though, they say they knew it was time, that the frenetic pace of life with two wage earners in the household had already taken a toll.

In 2007, they bought a Stevens 47 sailboat, nearly 50 feet long with two sleeping cabins and a kitchen. They christened it Totem. Both Behan and Jamie had grown up sailing, so they knew their way around a sailboat, but it still took months for the whole family to develop the skills they felt were required before setting out.

The family has transitioned from paper books to reading on four Kindles which are loaded up with ebooks.

What we learned

Along the way, they have homeschooled their three children, Niall (17), Siobhan (12) and Mairen (14). Teaching has transcended traditional ABCs though. The whole family has learned critical lessons about self and survival.

  • It’s okay to be different

Behan says that while they were planning their new life, many friends and family members questioned the move and cautioned them against it. She says it took a great deal of mental effort and anguish to overcome their own uncertainties bred from other people’s fears. But over time, they came to realize that they had made the right choice, even if few people at the time agreed.

As their uncertainties melted away, a rising confidence in their own decision-making began to percolate into other aspects of their lives. They realized that it was unnecessary, and in fact, potentially harmful, to be beholden to others’ opinions.

“I feel like I have a much better idea of what the world outside the US is like, and I’ve really found that it’s ok to be different,” says their son Niall. “I don’t think I would be as mature or confident if I’d grown up on land.”

  • Adaptability is a skill

The Giffords say that each new country they visit offers a brand new environment, requiring the family to embrace a new culture, a new language, another way of looking at life. That has bred a level of adaptability that the parents believe will serve their children well into adulthood.

Their ability to adapt helped immensely when it came to formulating a home school curriculum that best took advantage of their new lifestyle. Initially, they looked into popular homeschooling options like Calvert Education. But the program turned out to be wrong for them. The curriculum comes in a big box, one for each child, which they found burdensome on a small boat. And the lessons were too general, and didn’t seem to apply to the experiences they were having.

 “We take advantage of all these cool places we’ve been. Our lifestyle is like a living field trip.” “There’s efficiency in having kids learning similar things even at different ages,” says Jamie, “but to take advantage of all these cool places we’ve been, that’s where great learning takes place. Our lifestyle is like a living field trip.”

So they dropped Calvert and developed their own curriculum using resources online and talking at length with other cruisers.

The children are avid readers because, well, what else is there to do at sea for days on end?

“Face it, there’s a lot of slow time on the boat,” says Jamie.

While initially they had dozens of books on board, they slowly transitioned to reading on four Kindles which are loaded up with ebooks. While at sea, they have only enough bandwidth through a satellite phone to download text-only email. One indulgence which Behan was particularly adamant about was having a set of encyclopedias on board, which to most of us, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, seems quaint. Jamie was initially against having the large tomes aboard because of space constraints, but now says it was a great decision.

“The kids looked stuff up all the time and then would just keep reading through other passages. It’s sounds antiquated, but it’s a great way to learn,” he says.

  • Real life makes an excellent classroom

Over the first year or two, the family came to appreciate how much more valuable the real world can be as a classroom than the traditional four walls and a blackboard most of us grew up with.

On a reef in French Polynesia, where the couple spent weeks living and snorkeling, they brought scientists aboard (fellow cruisers with PhDs) who would school the children in marine biology. A book with pictures of a thriving reef, or a dying one, is no match for the real thing.

Sometimes a coral reef becomes a classroom.

“It’s a learning-rich environment,” says Jamie.

In every new country, the family tries to learn the language. They have picked up Spanish and a smattering of others. “We were in Indonesia for six months and they got pretty good at Indonesian,” Jamie says.

Perhaps of equal value, they have also learned for themselves how dramatically humans are impacting the globe. Some areas they have visited are virtual cesspools of pollution. Several spots around Southeast Asia are so ravaged by garbage and untreated sewage that entire swaths of ocean have become dead zones, literally bereft of life.

“We’ve seen horrible environmental devastation, barges in Borneo loaded with trees illegally logged for palm oil and illegal gold mining operations that ruin the waterway. We have learned so much about these problems by seeing them firsthand,” says Jamie.

The thread connecting all these lessons, of course, has been the need to live life without structure. There are routines, but every day is different, and often they are not sure what their new destination will be or what it will be like once they get there. A single bad decision or a bout of bad luck could bring their world crashing down, and that can be stressful when family and traditional support structures are ten thousand miles away.

 There have been several close calls when they worried about the safety of the family.  They say that the lifestyle sometimes draws gasps from other so-called “helicopter parent” families, whose kids live intensely structured lives of school, sports and extracurricular activities.

Despite the inherent risks, for the family, that seems to be the point of choosing this lifestyle.

“I feel like our life is the polar opposite of that,” says Niall. “We are so out there. Everything we do is about NOT being cooped up in our own little world.”

A squall looms on the horizon. (Behan Gifford)

Not always perfect

So has it all been so rosy? Not at all. The couple says that there have been several close calls when they worried about the safety of the family.

One of the more terrifying moments actually happened in the US, off the coast of California when a powerboat lost control in Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island and almost rammed them. Dozens of other boats were destroyed, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, but the powerboat luckily missed them by a meter or so.

In Dominica, the kids were just feet away when a fight broke out over drugs between a man wielding a machete and another man. They wrestled on the ground and the crowd pulled them apart. No one was badly hurt, but the experience was jarring.

They have sailed into storms that were not reported on the marine radio, there have been lightning storms, and foodborne illness is always a concern. But usually the weather reports are accurate so they can avoid bad weather. And Behan says they take great care to make sure that the food they buy and eat is fresh and healthy.

“We try to eat local whenever we can,” Behan says. They catch fish, but will stock up on staples like fruit, vegetables, pasta and rice when they reach a port.

The family is close, but there have been stressful moments with everyone living on top of each other. In moments of tension, which the couple claims are rare, a family member might get off the boat and paddle a kayak or play on the beach.

 The biggest issue is the lack of a safety net. “Yeah, like any family, we argue, we get into a fight,” says Niall. “We’ll exchange some words and then go off and do our thing.”

“We have a very big backyard,” jokes Jamie.

The biggest issue is the lack of a safety net. “On land you’ve got 911,“ Jamie says. “But if you are in the middle of the ocean it can take days for someone to get to you.”

A dolphin swims off the Totem’s bow in the South China Sea.


 “It has brought us closer as a family.”  Over these eight years, Behan has learned enough lessons, in fact, that she wrote a book with two other cruising parents that she hopes will enlighten and inform people who might want to give the cruising lifestyle a try. It’s not a life for everyone, they say, but for those who believe that the world offers a far richer life experience than an office job and a suburban home, the payoffs, they say, can be immense.

“We’ve had to do this thing together,” Says Behan. “And that has brought us closer as a family. You really can’t ask for more than that.”

Eight years into their adventure, the family is not stopping. In August, they sailed to Connecticut to spend time with Jamie’s aunt, who is in ill health. They are living with family and rekindling old friendships. Their son Niall is applying to college, and the couple is hoping that his unconventional schooling will be seen as a benefit to college admissions officers.

In early October, they headed out again. The whole family took a vote and it was unanimous that the adventure should continue. They are now setting sail for the Bahamas and from there, well, they are not sure. There is an open horizon ahead and they are going to sail into it.

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