‘We are living on a field trip’: A family reflects on sailing around the world

Published 8:58 AM EDT, Mon August 20, 2018
CNN —  

When married couple Behan and Jamie Gifford plotted to set sail around the world with their children 10 years ago, there was only one problem.

Their kids, aged four, six and nine, couldn’t swim.

“I’m sure that gives us some bad parent of the year award,” laughs wife Behan, reflecting on the absurdity of it all, one decade and 58,000 miles later.

Her children, she explained, were put off by lessons at the noisy and crowded public pools by their home in Seattle, Washington.

“We knew that when the water was warm and there were pretty things to see they would get more interested,” Behan tells CNN, adding that after just a few months at sail “the nine-year-old was a fish.”

Some practicalities of the Giffords’ life at sea, like teaching their kids to swim, were picked up as they went along, while others were carefully planned.

01:14 - Source: CNN
Meet the family who's been at sea for a decade

The couple purchased their 47-foot Stevens sailboat, built in 1982, for $190,000, then spent a year getting it ready. The boat is equipped with a 75-horsepower engine, along with three tight bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Given that 48-year-old Behan (pronounced BEE-IN), and Jamie, 52, quit stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, budgeting for diesel fuel, docking fees, food and other travel costs was essential.

At sea, the family has lived off roughly $30,000 a year, supported by their work as sailing lifestyle consultants, his work as a technical sailing adviser, and her career as a freelance writer and author.

The children’s education, however, has been largely cost free.

’We are living on a field trip’

Given the difficulty of finding a good bookstore while circumnavigating the Earth – stopping in every remote hideaway from Mexico to Madagascar – the emergence of E-books has been a godsend to the Giffords.

Since setting off from the coast of Washington state in 2008, the family has read “hundreds of books” during its travels, many set in remote places they’ve visited. That includes “Typee,” a novel describing Herman Melville’s capture in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific.

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“It feels like magic to do that and walk around some of the same places,” Jamie explains. “It really brings the book to life and the place to life.”

“At the end of the day we go out and it becomes a four-hour dinner. We talk about the history of the area and colonial expansion in the 1600s,” he says, while listing favorite beaches in the Seychelles, Namibia and the Maldives.

“We are living basically on a field trip.”

’Normal was being on the boat’

The couple, who are back in Washington to visit family and allow time for their boat’s wet hull to dry out, were recently reassured that their life at sea hadn’t backfired.

Now 19, son Niall is entering his freshman year at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, a school aptly named after two famous explorers.

Niall and his sisters committed to boat life after a brief foray on land two years into their journey. With the family running out of money, Behan was able to secure work at a digital ad agency in Australia for 18 months.

But the children, who attended school in Brisbane, felt stifled by a schedule that was “super managed” from one activity to another, explains Jamie. “For them it seemed strange, because they didn’t have any time to just go out and play and have an imaginative time.”

Once ready, the family voted unanimously to keep sailing.

“We never reached the point, fortunately, where the kids said we are done on the boat thing,” he says. “After not such a long time, normal for our kids was being on the boat, home schooling and visiting the countries all the time.”

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’If you can’t fix it …’

Though the Giffords have had long stretches out at sea – including trips of 19 and 17 days crossing oceans with only blue horizon in sight – most of their journeys have been short spurts averaging 40 miles. Overnight, they are nearly always docked.

That system, along with careful charting, has allowed them to avoid heavy storms and damage to the boat.

As for the inevitable wear and tear, the couple have fixed their breakdowns on the go, often with the help of others in the cruising community.

Their advice to those interested in pursuing boat life? “If you can’t fix it, be ready to go without it.”

Something as basic as shopping at the nearest market without a car lends itself to keeping fit, Behan explains, along with outdoor activities like hiking.

Swimming, meanwhile, has taken on new levels.

Because their boat can’t fit diving equipment for everyone, the family learned how to hold their breaths for long stretches underwater – a sport known as freediving. Jamie can reach depths of 65 feet while remaining in the water “a couple of minutes,” while daughters Mairen, 16, and Siobhan, 14, can dive 35 feet deep.

What is not an aquatic hobby, however, is fishing, which they swore off after seeing the wreckage caused by fishermen off the coasts of Thailand and Indonesia who used dynamite and cyanide.

Instead, the family embraces local cultures through their cuisines, exchanging recipes for time on the boat and other acts of goodwill.

“I love experiencing the world through food that we can find,” says Behan, describing favorite dishes of Larb from Thailand, bobotie from South Africa, kottu from Sri Lanka, and mas huni from the Maldives. “I feel like we have taken away a different dish from almost every place.”

Quality wine from South Africa that was “mind-blowing in value” was another discovery.

Then there was the more adventurous stuff, like eating fried crickets in Thailand – described as “a crunchy salty snack” – and stir-fried honeybee larva in Indonesia. “I was basically eating maggots,” says Behan.

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’The basic rule is don’t be stupid’

Despite their adventures, the Giffords have skirted serious medical issues and accidents over the past decade.

The family takes out medical insurance at a cost of up to $2,500 per year in case of “catastrophe,” and have used local clinics successfully.

“Americans get a little myopic. Our healthcare system is such a mess,” says Behan. “Healthcare has been wonderful in other parts of the world. Most of the time we’re able to get what we need.”

Furthermore, the couple say that travel risks visiting unfamiliar countries have been overblown, adding they have “never felt personally threatened.”

“The basic rule is don’t be stupid,” says Behan. “You take precautions in places that you should,” which for them included Papa New Guinea, and South Africa, where they wouldn’t drive at night.

Additionally, the family avoided parts of Colombia and Venezuela completely.

They have relied on the “coconut telegraph” for information from people on other boats, along with the US State Department website – though its warnings “need context” instead of “blanket statements,” she says.

In truth, the couple say they have felt safer abroad than in the US.

“A lot of people say our choices are too risky,” says Jamie. “We risked our kids’ lives, we risked their education, we risked their socialization and things.”

He counters that the “sad state of gun violence in some places in (the US) is spooky,” and notes lockdowns and “active shooter drills” as an uncomfortable new normal in Washington high schools.

None of it “seems very civilized in an advanced country,” he says.

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’We’ve learned a lot by being freer’

As with all families, things evolve. The Giffords are mapping the next leg of their adventure – an 18-month sojourn to Mexico – as a foursome for the first time.

From there, they will head to South America and the South Pacific by 2020, adding to the 48 countries and territories they have seen.

“One of the things with this lifestyle that we’ve been lucky to have is time, and we don’t have to keep the schedule that all your crazy land people have,” says Jamie, only half-jokingly.

“That lesson for us has played across (our children’s) whole lives and ours as well. We have learned a lot by being a bit freer.”