Sailing Totem: Fitting In Some Fun

Every boat needs a Happiness Engineer to make sure the crew’s morale stays high.
Oyster shack
Lagoon-front oyster shack at the Estero Morua. Behan Gifford

Shipyard burnout is real. My husband, Jamie, and I don’t just have a full plate; we have a few brimming plates and are passing them back and forth while juggling and spinning them on straws. At least, that’s how it feels some days. Our everyday shuffle to make progress on our Sparkman & Stephens Stevens 47 Totem’s refit while supporting our normal work also included boat show presentations. All good, but very busy, and time to take our own advice about crew morale.

Enter the happiness engineer.

Tecma head
The Tecma head on Totem is the only part of the forward head that’s (mostly) finished. Finalizing cabin details makes me a little nervous; interior design is not our strength. Behan Gifford

At one stage or another, most boats need someone in the role we call the happiness engineer. This need is especially common during the transition to living aboard. Cruising is usually one person’s dream more than anyone else’s. That person is responsible for making sure that the transition goes well, so the more tentative crew doesn’t mutiny. Being aware of that reality, and having the happiness engineer put effort into boosting the crew’s happiness factor, can be critical to making the leap successfully.


The unfortunate truth is that we have seen a badly managed transition kill the dream, just cut it short, sometimes before leaving the dock. It’s incumbent on whoever is most invested in that dream’s success to manage it well. That means different things to different crews, and is something we work on with clients.

The busy galley of our temporary land digs near the boatyard in Mexico. Behan Gifford

The underlying point is to remember building in fun when times are tough. That transition on board is most delicate because it is so hard. There are other times, too, that stepping outside the things you’re supposed to be doing for the purpose of injecting that fun is critical—like when you’ve been flat-out with multiple priorities, as we have.

Our son Niall inadvertently reminded us that the happiness engineer is a role we need to remember, too. Pandemic realities meant that he and his girlfriend, Julia, extended their stay with us in Mexico (hooray!). Why attend class online from a dorm room with cafeteria food when you can have taco-fueled remote classes from a Mexican casita? But Niall noted, when ruminating about the options, that we should make sure we did things: fit in the fun, instead of just being busy with life. 


So, we did.

The happiness engineer always encourages a special meal out, or an elevated meal from the home galley. Behan Gifford

We hit our favorite place for hot, fresh churros. We ate more delicious tortas and tacos than we have in months. At home, dinners went up a notch: We made fresh pasta, Julia cooked up homemade gnocchi, and she taught us her shakshuka recipe. 

Well of course we’re barefoot. Behan Gifford

We hiked shifting sand dunes (the largest complex of dunes in North America) at El Pinacate. We splurged on a fantastic day trip heading east into Sonora, led by experienced guides, that started with breakfast under a mesquite tree (I discovered I’ve been mispronouncing mesquite; it’s meh-SKEE-tay) with a nonagenarian rancher exercising his horse nearby. We wondered at the carved messages of petroglyphs stacked up a hillside studded with cacti. We passed through an organ-pipe cactus portal with a blessing from our Tohono O’odham guide. In the whitewashed walls of 200-plus-year-old missions, we heard stories from a curator and a priest, and then let the original murals tell us their own stories. 


We took time out for sunsets with a view, overlooking oyster beds in the lagoon and across the top of the sea to Baja.

Petroglyphs stacked up a hillside studded with cacti. Behan Gifford

The work is still there, and maybe a few things slid back a little, but what we’ll remember looking back in a month, or a year, or 10 years will not be the stress of some crunch time on presentations. It will be the good times we shared as a family, thanks to our happiness engineer.

The Totem crew discovers the mother of all cactus during our time out for fun. Behan Gifford

Thank goodness for the wisdom of our kids, and the reminder to slow down and fit in the fun. It’s not just for the transition into cruising.

Caborca’s mission building dates to the mid-1700s. In the whitewashed walls of 200-year old missions, we heard stories from a curator and a priest and then let the original murals tell us their own stories. Behan Gifford

Speaking of fun: you might have found Wordle, the simple word game that took off in such a big way that The New York Times bought it. The Totem crew thinks you should try Wordle No. 77. Trust us.

Niall and Julia
We took time out for family, and for sunsets with a view. Niall and Julia extended their stay in Mexico. Behan Gifford

A big month for learning

In the weeks ahead, we have a pile of workshops and seminars for the TRU crew, our coaching community. Some topics are inspired by their questions and seasonal sailing goals, while others are to support incremental learning and support plans for cruising:

Where to from the Bahamas? Tips on how best to sail east and move south. What’s it like entering Caribbean countries? Routes to consider toward hurricane season destinations.

Lessons from crossing an ocean. The Worldtowning family on s/v Friendship, a Broadblue 38 Prestige Catamaran, sailed from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. What went well? What didn’t? What would they change? Debriefing the passage to help others learn from their experience. 

Electrical systems. Fundamentals and troubleshooting are common early-cruising headaches, so Jamie’s going to cover major principles, common problems and how to help new cruisers prepare.

Health care for cruising. Tackling common questions about what to expect. One of our TRU crew is an emergency-room doctor who spent much of the past couple of years cruising. Join in and share his perspective.If you’d like to nominate one of these topics for Totem Talks, let us know. These free, public livestreams are typically the last Sunday of the month. Registration details will be posted to our Events page, or you can subscribe to be notified.