04 February 2013

10 Questions For Totem

Jamie, Behan, Niall, Mairen, and Siobhan Gifford sail on Totem, an S&S designed Stevens 47 (47’) hailing from Eagle Harbor – Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA. They began cruising in 2008 when their children were 4, 6 and 9. The kids are 8, 10 and 13 at the time of this interview.

They say: Departing Puget Sound in 2008, we hopped down the US west coast to Mexico. We explored much of the Pacific coast of Mexico and a hurricane season up  in the Sea of Cortez. In 2010 we sailed the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Society Islands, Suwarrow in the Cook Islands, Vava’u Group in Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, and on to Australia. After parking in Australia for a bit to recharge the cruising kitty, we sailed north to Papua New Guinea in 2012. Early 2013 finds the Totem crew heading west through Indonesia. We keep our position current and our ruminations semi-current on the blog.

Anything else readers should know about you?

We met sailing. Behan sailed a little growing up, but college dinghy racing got her hooked. Jamie grew up sailing in Mystic, Connecticut, and has broad racing, coastal cruising, and sailmaking experience. In 2002, we began family cruising in Puget Sound with our children, then a 3 year old and a 14 day old. Seasons didn’t matter, family time together on the water did. As our family grew (with a 3rd child), so did our family boating experience - one weekend at a time.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
I am sure we made many, but the lingering memory was that we believed everything onboard Totem needed to be perfectly prepared by departure day. When our milestone day arrived, project lists remained uncompleted. We were ready enough and cast off without hesitation, but with some trepidation; especially after exhausting months of preparation. Jamie’s  image of being perfectly prepared grew out of calibrating our budget to the right safety gear, the right sailing gear, proper systems with full documentation, generous spares and tools, and common comfort amenities. All of this is well and good, but everything onboard is a compromise in one way or another; and there will always be work onboard fixing things. Even high quality, expertly installed stuff can and does fail prematurely. What we realized is that lots of time spent weekend and vacation sailing is the closest you get to perfect preparation.

What is something that you read or heard about cruising, that you found particularly accurate?

“Stop and take your own pulse first”: From a physician and friend Curtis Edwards, who taught us wilderness first aid. The context is of a first responder to a medical emergency, but the notion definitely applies to cruising. In a stressful situation, take a little extra time to calm yourself and really assess the situation.

“Be able to fix it yourself, live without it, or don’t bring it”: From Jim Jessie, our cruising mentor, marine surveyor, racing sailor, circumnavigator, and salty dog. As a typical cruiser’s onboard systems continue to increase in both quantity and complexity it may appear that less skill is ok and comfort is easy to come by – but when things break, do you still feel as comfortable and secure?

“Listen to other cruisers, but don’t trust a word of it.” From an unknown fellow customer in Downwind Marine in San Diego. It’s not a paranoid stance, rather a reminder to be open minded. Very often we’ve heard about how awful or great a place is, and yet we found it to be just the opposite. A town or an anchorage or a situation is created by countless variables easily changed; making it different for the next person.

What is a tip or a trick you have learned along the way?

Be prepared, e.g., it may be a picture- perfect, protected, glassy calm anchorage- but put everything away, keep decks clean and be prepared for a 2am squall that throws it all to hell. Be prepared enough to readily get away in the middle of the night so that in the rare even that it occurs, you’re ready.

There are dangerous herds of group-think that form around major passages. When you choose to leave the harbor, remember that it was YOUR choice. Similarly, when you enter an anchorage and see two boats at one side of it, their presence does not indicate “the best spot.” Use your judgment (and give us some room!).

What are some of your favorite pieces of gear on your boat and why?

In no particular order:
  • Cabin fans. We’d never go the A/C route and the fans are great for comfort level… probably present at the moment because we’re only about 25 miles from the equator.
  • Cockpit shade. It seems like you can’t get enough.
  • Fish finder, because you not only know where the fish are, but the topography of the bottom- great for spotting bommies in the tropics. Cheaper than depth sounder and doesn’t require putting a hole in the hull.
  • A dinghy with some oomph. We know lots of cruisers love to love their rowing/hard dinghies, but you miss a whole lot of exploring if you don’t have at least 15hp to jam to the outer reef. We also have a 3.5hp to sip fuel when we don’t need the extra zoom, and like the redundancy. It sucked when our 15hp died in French Poly and we finished the Pacific run with a shared 2.5.
  • Cocktail shaker. We don’t even make ice on board but this is an essential part of the Crew Morale Package.
  • Proper plates and glasses, because plastic stinks for many reasons.
  • Rock solid anchor and ground tackle. Too much depends on it.
What is something about the cruising culture you like and what is something you dislike?

We love the camaraderie, the fact that we can know someone we’ve just met in an anchorage better within a day or two than some of our immediate neighbors from land life. We love the bias between cruising boats to offer mutual aid, although it seems to be on the wane as cruising becomes more accessible and a rapid-fire circumnavigation something money can more readily buy.

What we try to distance ourselves from is the group think that tends to occur when a group of cruisers are gathered with a similar goal (e.g.:  at a jump off point before a big passage engaging in weather analysis paralysis, at those ports around the world were cruising boats tend to get stuck to the bottom).

What advice would you give to parents thinking about taking their children cruising?

Tip toe in, and if it’s working, then run with it. Friends, family, and fellow sailors will give you many “great” reasons why you shouldn’t go: safety issues, irresponsible parenting, ruined education, financial doom; your kids are too young or old, etc. It’s true that cruising isn’t financially enriching, but be it a yearlong sabbatical or longer sailing lifestyle choice for some it sure beats the routines of mainstream life.

What we’ve found is that it gives us a strong bond as a family, is providing our children with excellent learning in many more dimensions then a conventional education, and- well, it’s just a lot of fun! We think it provides a tremendously fulfilling childhood. Despite my fears, their education has not suffered. At some point, it won’t work for everyone on board, and then we’ll stop…but for now this is as much a joy to the kids as part of their identity, and we see no sign of stopping soon.

In reality there are a so many individual reasons/dynamics why cruising will work or fail for a family. My optimism about what worked for us may be just as unsuited to your situation as the pessimistic opinions you’ll get. Spend time as a family unit afloat, and find out for yourself.

What type of watch schedule do you normally use while offshore?

Being shorthanded and with kids, we lean towards the crews’ conditional awareness more than formality. A crews’ rested condition is like the daily balance on a credit card. Sleep is the asset that keeps your balance in check. Or lacking sleep is a liability from which you barrow against and can pay big for with fatigue.

In daylight boat chores are much easier. So we have no daylight watch schedule and a strong emphasis on keeping up with, or catching up on sleep. We have some structure to night watch, worked out to fit our natural sleep tendencies. Behan can stay up late and get up early, but isn’t as happy in the middle. Jamie does fine in the middle and is ok waking early. So we setup for that schedule, though watch change vary somewhat based on conditions. When it’s colder or rougher, watches are shorter – 3 hours or less depending on severity. On nice nights when rested, we’ve done 4, 5, and 6 hours watches.

Our method works well for us because we can each “read” the others conditional state AND neither wants the other person to get fatigued. It also helps that we have trusted Niall, now 13, to stand a short daylight watch since he was 10. Or, if Jamie’s feeling sleepy on a night watch but want to let Behan sleep longer, he’ll wake Niall with the news that we have dolphins around the boat. Sometimes they may not be there by the time he is tethered in cockpit, but his enthusiasm is always energizing!

Describe the compromises (if any) that you have made in your cruising in order to stay on budget.

Cruising seems to cost whatever you have. We scale expenses to work with our budget with an eye on local rates. We could afford to eat out in Mexico and Fiji because it was delicious and cheap. In pretty much the rest of the Pacific, it didn’t fit our budget to go to a restaurant. We try to avoid environments that suck money from you, like posh towns or marinas. There’s a lot of extra gear that we have shunted into the “luxury” column: we’d love to add a lot of discretionary items, from sat phone to SUP board, but we don’t need them. Ultimately, we parked t work when it was time to refill the kitty- but a pause, not an end, to adventuring afloat.

Where was your favorite place to visit and why?

This is one of those impossible questions- but that’s the good news, right? Jamie and I both keep coming back to Suwarrow, in the Cook Islands, as a favorite place, for two reasons: partly the wild remoteness and natural beautify of the place, but also because of the great experienced shaped by the rangers who were stationed there during our visit. Their active involvement in helping us really understand the nature of life in an atoll made it truly unforgettable.

We both agreed as well that some kind of special mention has to be given to the Sea of Cortez and to Papua New Guinea. They are all very different places, but like Suwarrow, the affinity draws from a combination of raw beauty and remoteness. It takes work to get there, and to stay there, but if you’re into that kind of thing- the rewards are tremendous.

What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I've asked you and how would you answer it?

What is it about the cruising life that drives and fulfills you?
  • Meeting other people in the countries we visit: sharing stories, making them as welcome on our floating home as we have been made in theirs ashore
  • Living a leaner, greener life. We tried to live with a light footprint ashore, but it’s impossible to compare with the way we’re able to live on the boat. We reduce, reuse, and reuse again: with limited space, every item is considered before acquisition. With no garbage service or utilities, you think more about unnecessary packaging and what goes overboard
  • The opportunity to raise our children in an environment that helps them internalize from their earliest days the beauty of our planet, and the importance of taking care of it for foreseeable generations