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12 Questions to 12 Sailing Families

S/V TOTEM Stevens 47 sloop - Homeport: Eagle harbor, USA

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Mairen, 8, climbs a palm tree for a better look- Fakarava atoll, Tuamotus
Siobhan, Behan, Mairen, Niall, and Jamie after a day of playing at The Mogote, La Paz, Mexico
Niall at the top of a short ridge hike, Isla San Francisco, Mexico
Jamie helps Siobhan with a bath underway: saltwater cleaning followed

Behan & Jamie GIFFORD + Niall (11), Mairen (8), Siobhan (6) - This family of five escapes convention and thrives - Round the world cruisers - Currently in Polynesia - More about the TOTEM family

Click on a question or scroll down this page

1. The biggest challenge you faced in getting out there?   7. How do you handle: HEALTH and SAFETY?
2. Is there a best age to take children cruising?   8. How do you handle: EDUCATION and FULFILLMENT?
3. Any modifications to the boat for the children?   9. How do you handle: TASKS and CHORES?
4. Anything you wish you had known before you left?   10. What do you like BEST / LEAST about cruising?
5. A typical day aboard?   11. Has cruising changed your family?
6. What are the kids' responsibilities aboard?   12. A recipe for cruising families?

Update (2015)

5 years later TOTEM answer the 12 questions again


TOTEM sails into Moorea, French Polynesia

1. What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting out there?

The biggest challenge is the mental hurdle of getting past all the things that say “you can't do this!”- from family, to friends, to society in general.

Going cruising means flying against convention of the predictable paths in life. For many people, our desire to live like this instead of doing whatever it is we're “supposed” to do is just too much to comprehend.

We handled this by being pretty selective about who we shared our plans with, keeping it to people we knew would be supportive - why subject ourselves to the negativity, when we're up to our eyeballs in the challenges of preparing to go anyway?

Divesting from possessions, home, buying / outfitting our Stevens 47, Totem, and preparing to depart consumed enough emotional energy already! We didn't open up to everyone until we were in the home stretch toward departure.

The exception to this was our immediate family - whether they supported us or not, we let them know of our plans well in advance. This did not always go well.

2. How old were your children when you left? Is there a best age to take children cruising?

Our children - age 6 8, and 11 - are smack in the middle of what I think is a cruising sweet spot of age 5 to 12.

At this time, kids are young enough that they like hanging out a LOT with mom & dad, but old enough to have safety sense, and old enough to learn about, appreciate, and remember the places we're visiting. At the same time, they are not so old that a set peer group is the center of their lives. They are very adaptable to new situations and new friends. It also helps with adjusting to living aboard, although being on boats since they were babies also helped fast-forward through some of the acclimatization to living aboard full time.

I really think kids can go cruising at any age, although it seems that the very young and teenagers add different pressures:

  • One of the most nerve-wracking ages for the kids on board, at least for me as a parent, was the year or two once they become mobile. I will never forget the shock and horror of waking up one morning to realize that our babe had managed to climb up a steep companionway INTO the cockpit, and was laughing down into the cabin at us!

    Partly because of the added demands on watchful parenting with young children, we had an artificial departure timeline in mind of "whenever the youngest turns 5". As it turns out, we ran out of patience and left when the youngest was barely four, but she was particularly happy on board and we were past the challenges of toddler years.

  • At the other end, while we do know a number of teenagers out cruising, I can only think of one who is older than 14. I'm sure they are out there, but it's much less common. We have seen several families stop cruising based on the needs or desires of their teenage children to be in a land-based school with a larger and steadier peer community.

All questions

3. Did you make modifications to the boat for the children? Any suggestion?

We made a number of modifications to our boat to suit our family.

  • There are five of us, but we could only fit four bodies around our table in the main salon without pulling out the (very awkward) leaf every time we all sit down for a meal. Jamie rebuilt the table and settees so that we could all fit around it, and was able to improve storage areas around the settees at the same time.

  • To accommodate our various reading levels and interests, we added more bookshelves - Totem now has about 30 linear feet, and yet there's still an overflow locker full of books.


  • We modified the flush system on our head so that our younger girls have the reach (and the leverage) to flush it themselves.

  • Since our younger children especially often end up sharing the bed with mom and dad, Jamie modified the layout of our aft cabin - removing the starboard side single berth, and expanding the port side double into a wider bunk - so we could all fit without putting kinks in our back.


I think it's hard to generalize about family-friendly boat features, because there are many good options depending on children's ages, family preferences, and priorities… but we do feel more comfortable with a center cockpit. When the children were small, there was simply farther for them to get away into the water - by accident or on purpose.

We put netting on the lifelines on our first boat, but didn't on our second - even in the non-tropical sun of Puget Sound, it rotted quickly, and we think offers only false (and possibly dangerous) assurance of security.

4. Anything you wish you had known before you got started? Any advice for families?

Niall and Mairen, junior naturalists, watch blue-footed boobies at Isla Isabel - Mexico's answer to the Galapagos.

I spent a lot of time worrying about education.

I wish I had appreciated how the vastness of what our children learn as cruising kids far outweighs the conventional school experience. It all works out!

I am convinced that this is the best childhood we could give our little ones.

  • They thrive and learn in depth and breadth;

  • They have exposure to different countries and cultures;

  • They think independently and are comfortable talking to - and asserting their thoughts with - adults;

  • They are active and healthy;

  • And perhaps most important, they internalize from their earliest days the beauty of our planet, and the importance of taking care of it for forseeable generations


My advice for families

At the risk of sounding trite - GO!

Everything, everyone, tells you that you can't… but as long as you have the means to put yourself in a safe boat, and can be patient and slow about a learning curve, anyone can go.

All questions

5. A typical day aboard?

Fun and games with other kid boats: Jamie swings Niall from the boom (Chamela, Mexico).
If we've been lucky that day,
we'll have a fish for dinner.

A typical day at anchor

We generally have quieter mornings, and more active afternoons.

Mornings might be reading books, individually or aloud together; the kids love imaginary games, making costumes and role-playing games; we catch up on journals.

Afternoons could be a trip into town for provisioning, or a hike on shore, or a snorkeling expedition- depending on where we are and what is available.


A typical day on passage

    Typical days depend on the conditions.

    On a normal or lighter days, it's like normal life on our little floating island.

    I'll put meals in the solar oven on deck, we'll hang out in the cockpit - looking for sea life, playing cards, or reading. The kids will spend hours in imaginary games, especially if we're both busy with boat handling or boat chores.

    If we've been lucky that day, we'll have a fish for dinner; if we're making extra power, it's fun to play a movie in the evening.

All questions

6. What are the kids' responsibilities aboard?

For her 6th birthday,
Siobhan asked for dinghy driving lessons!
Niall is our radio buff,
handling SSB net control duties in Mexico.


The kids really like being an active part of the crew. It's great learning, it helps them feel important, and it really can be meaningful help - even with the ages of our group.

Our son is a whiz at the SSB, and had a weekly net control slot for a couple of months in Mexico.

For her 6 th birthday, our daughter requested dinghy driving lessons

OK! They aren't always excited about helping with maintenance - like wiping stainless, or cleaning the bottom, but we try to involve them when we can.

7. How do you handle: HEALTH and SAFETY

Keeping the kids safe aboard

Jamie reviews use of safety gear
with the children before a passage.

We have fair skin and a family history of skin cancer, so having good sun protection is one of our biggest safety concerns. We researched (and tested) sunscreens before we left and found one we liked that we could buy in bulk and use it daily.

At our departure, none of them were swimmers, so we were particularly vigilant about wearing PFDs and using harnesses.

Before we moved aboard, and before major passages, we have “safety school.” They test their gear, we review the locations of everything from fire extinguishers to the EPIRB, and talk about what to do in different scenarios. They are all attuned to be aware of strange sounds or smells and alert us right away.

By age 10, our son was adept at handling the SSB radio, and knew what to do in an emergency: the right way to call for help if it should ever be required.

Caring for the kids offshore

When the going gets rolly, the kids move their games to the cabin sole

Underway, they're only on deck with an adult, and must always ask permission to go outside the cockpit - just as my husband and I inform each other if we're going on deck.

We generally use tethers and harnesses more than PFDs: they don't get in the way, and they still have lots of freedom of movement.

Caring for the kids in rough weather

On Totem, they stay down below, napping or playing games. They sometimes turn a bumpy ride into a game, bouncing around in the V-berth. On rare occasions they have been uncomfortable enough to need meds, and we have chewable meclazine doses for them in those situations.

As parents, we have to keep our cool: if we are scared, nervous, frustrated - our feelings are readily transferred to the children.

Keeping the kids healthy, eg getting medical care

The kids have been much healthier than they were before.

It's not that they were unhealthy before, but they're not around groups of kids passing germs along in the confined environment of a classroom. We have a healthy diet, with minimal packaged food, and they're physically active.

Cuts, scrapes, and irritation from bug bites have been our problems.

On the other hand, things do happen, and frankly - our experience to date has been that medical care is both easier and cheaper after you're outside the US. We knew a 4-year-old cruising boy in Mexico fall down on the sidewalk and break his two front (baby) teeth - the dental care there is good and inexpensive. Friends have needed stitches here in French Polynesia, and found that excellent care cost them less than a co-pay at home.

8. How do you handle: EDUCATION and FULFILLMENT?


The children, journaling in TOTEM’s main cabin

On s/v Totem, we take an eclectic approach to homeschooling. The most important part of education for us is to embrace and learn from the environment around us. Instead of buying boxes with a school-year-in-a-box, we stuffed our boat with resources for FUN, and to support learning from the world around us.

A great microscope for looking at critters from the land and the sea... stories and references about the countries we visit, the animals we see, the natural environment we experience... games we play as a family and books, books books!

We do have some traditional educational tools (a math program, some spelling workbooks, etc.) but let the interest of our children be the number one driver in directing their education. We don't have a strict daily structure; we try to grab those times when the children are most excited and interested in something, which makes for natural (and much more fun) learning.

If conditions are benign, we find passages are a great time to pull out the books - counterpoint to the environmental learning that tends to happen in a new location. After two years, it is a joy to see them growing as articulate children of the world through our untraditional approach to learning afloat.

Friendships and social interactions

Beach games ensue with a gathering
of “kid boats” in the Tuamotus
Playdates in Paradise
Timothy (s/v Whisper) picks up Niall in the dinghy

There are so many other boats with children out cruising right now, it's easy to find playmates.

There's an important shift that takes place in cruising kids, where they are no longer pigeonholed into highly specific groups based on age and often gender: they are accustomed to having playmates across a range of ages and could care less if they're boys or girls.

Just yesterday, we had a baseball game in a palm grove with a 7 year age range across the kids participating.

We've routinely shared anchorages with 3 or more boats that have children on board, and several times this year been with 8 or more “kid boats.”

Keeping the kids entertained

They don't need us to entertain them…I like to think of this as one of the false needs of modern families that we've left behind. Our kids have no trouble entertaining themselves; by the same token, we all have a good time playing together.

Personal space aboard

Our girls currently share the v-berth, and our son sleeps the bunk-bed cabin aft of theirs; we have the aft cabin, and some separation from the kids with our main living space between.

Space for the children was a significant factor in our choice of cruising boat.

In our old boat, an Hallberg-Rassy 35 (aft master, v-berth forward), the kids were happy puppy-piling into the master bunk, the v-berth, and/or the settees. They were also that much younger, and weren't living aboard at the time. Still, it didn't seem like a viable long term layout for our family.

We felt it would be important for the girls and our son to have separate cabins as they edge toward adolescence, and enough space to call their own.

It's hard to find a layout in an offshore monohull that accommodates this in less than 50', and is one of the reasons we decided that the Stevens 47 was perfect for us. Some boats are able to make the shared v-berth work for boy-girl siblings by hanging a curtain or otherwise creating some separation, but we don't know any teenagers currently in this situation. Frankly, I don't think it's workable for longer term cruising.

Family back home and their concerns

We try to be open and frank with our families about what we're doing.

They don't all agree and we don't have full support but we do at least have acceptance. We try to impress on them our realistic ability to keep in touch - especially when we may not be able to update them for a period of time, to set the right expectations so there are no false alarms based on unfounded concerns about our whereabouts.

9. How do you handle: TASKS and CHORES


Our laundry machine is a 5-gallon bucket!

Laundry day at the anchorage.

We stocked up on environmentally friendly detergent when we had it available, and use a dedicated plunger to agitate a load of clothes. We typically do all the wash in salt water, then give a final freshwater rinse.

I really wish I had a wringer. I usually start the laundry, and my husband Jamie finishes it (he's the wringer!).

Clipped to our spectra lifelines on a sunny day and a good breeze, it doesn't take long to dry.

Clean-up and daily maintenance of the boat

On the inside, it does drive us crazy that we can have a spotless boat, and within a short time it's trashed again. Much of that is part and parcel of being a busy family with three children. There are legos on the sole, cutout mermaids on the table in the main salon, cracker crumbs on the settee and books everywhere. It's just part of we all share in trying to keep up…some of us needing more nudging than others!

Outside, we don't do much underway, but once we're hooked in an anchorage, it's a constant battle to keep the cockpit clear. Snorkeling gear, towels, books seem to be all over the cushions! This is when we play catch up on boat maintenance, too, from checking fluids to scrubbing the bottom.

Jamie hooks another: fishing in the Sea of Cortez

We divide on more pink/blue lines there: my husband has mechanical knowledge that doesn't come naturally to me. It's my goal, though, to be able to do anything that he can on board; we make sure that nothing requires physical strength beyond my ability to manage.

Feeding the family, nutrition and cooking

I do the provisioning planning and majority of the cooking, but we trade off on meal preparation. We work together on stowing so there aren't any big mysteries about what's available.

Our diet has varied depending on where we are, but we always try to find fresh local ingredients. That's been expensive in French Polynesia, but it was a dream for most of our time in Mexico!

10. What do you like BEST / LEAST about cruising?


Behan & Jamie

  • The best part for us is to be together while our children are young (and enjoying our company). It turns out it’s fun to spend time together as a family 24x7, and the opportunities to explore are like icing on the cake.

  • Cruising also gives us the opportunity to constantly be challenged and learn new things, from weather and boat mechanics to new languages and cultures.

Niall (11)

Snorkeling, and meeting new people!

Mairen (8)

Lots of fun things to see, like when you're snorkeling and going to different places. We get to have fun together.

Siobhan (6)

Snorkeling, swimming off the back of the boat, dolphins, whales, fishing, sailing, having family movie night.


Behan & Jamie

The constant maintenance…the occasional inconvenience of things breaking that you can't fix for a while, being unable to get a bucket of ice cream when/because you want to… instant gratifications! But weighing shallow things against our opportunities is pointless.

Niall (11)

Getting seasick and having the boat roll around. That doesn't happen very much, though.

Mairen (8)

Sometimes it can be really bumpy.

Siobhan (6)

When I'm seasick, when we have to run the engine and it's rolly.

11. Why did you go cruising as a family? Has cruising changed your family?

Mairen, Niall, and Jamie participate
in a release for Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings.
(Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico)

Why did we go cruising as a family

We lost Jamie’s mother when she was just in her 50s, before she could know our children. This was a wakeup call that turned our desire to go cruising “eventually” into a plan and a date to leave.

Many people we’ve meet seem to regret that they didn’t get to spend more time with their kids, so we’re enjoying this time while we can - wrapped in the other dream of a different lifestyle of experiencing the world.

Jamie had the dream since childhood, and gave me a copy of Robin Lee Graham’s book when we first started dating. I’ve had travel wanderlust and a passion for sailing since I was a teen, so bringing them together was a natural progression.

Has cruising changed our family

This is tough to answer.

It has made us even tighter knit than I think we already were - and I would have characterized our family as quite close before we left.

It has certainly expanded the literal and figurative horizons of our children, and doubtless had a positive impact on shaping the adults they'll become. Our kids don't care about the latest (fill in the blank with a current trendy toy) that's come out, and we think that's great.

It's turned our parent/child relationship from one of management to one of friendship.

All questions

12. One of your favorite quick, handy recipes for cruising families?

Sun-dried fish jerky

Drying fish jerky in the solar oven

How many cruisers don't fish? Not many that we know! When we catch more than we can eat or store, we make sun-dried fish jerky. It's a great protein snack…not my favorite for those nighttime watches but hard to beat on a breezy afternoon.

  • Slice fish filets into pieces that are as long as a finger and not more than ¼” thick.

  • Prepare marinade: soy sauce is the only essential, but we like to add (powdered) chili, ginger, and/or garlic to taste.

  • Marinate fish at least overnight; longer is OK too.

  • Dry it! This can be done a few ways.

    1. Lay slices of fish on wire racks and put in a sunny spot on deck

    2. Thread slices on thin line (you can use plain dental floss, too) and hang from rigging. Watch out for what's underneath, though, since it can drip in the beginning and that can leave an aroma later!

    3. Place in solar oven, and crack top to ensure moisture escapes. This is our method of choice and usually takes only ½ day to dry.

    4. If the weather is against you, your oven can do the trick too. A grill pan works well, or put a cookie sheet under a wire rack to catch drips. Use a very low temperature - 150 F is sufficient. Crack the door for air circulation to help fish dry.

  • To test for doneness, bend a piece: it should be firm and pliable without being moist, but not so dry that it cracks and breaks. One full day in the sun is usually plenty. If a second day is needed, be sure to take fish below overnight.





About the TOTEM family

Who is aboard?

Behan (40) & Jamie (44); Niall (11), Mairen (8) and Siobhan (6)

What kind of boat do you have?

Our floating home is a Stevens 47 sloop.

Where have you sailed?

Where did you start out? We criss-crossed thousands of miles in our home cruising grounds of Puget Sound, then came down the west coast of the US and spent nearly a year and a half exploring Pacific Mexico. We crossed to French Polynesia in April 2010 and are currently working our way through Polynesian islands.

How long have you been cruising? How old were the kids when you started?

When we left Bainbridge Island in 2008, the kids had recently turned 4, 6, and 9.

Where are you now?

We are anchored in Moorea, in French Polynesia.

What's next?

We're visiting the rest of French Polynesia's leeward islands until our visas run out, then working our way west and south – we plan to get to Australia for the cyclone season and spend 2011 “down under”.

Your blog or website(s)?

We blog at http://www.sv-totem.com

We write a monthly column, called "Lessons Learned While Cruising", for 48° North.