Sailing Totem: Our Messy, Beautiful Cruising Life

Yes, sailors have the problems of the privileged. They can still sting.
swim-step transom
Jamie examines Totem’s new swim-step transom. Behan Gifford

I think of problems like gas molecules, expanding to fill the space they’re given. I try to imagine that space as a box that I squish down and put away on a shelf before moving on. 

With that perspective, our “problem” at the moment is more like a recalibration: delays in the refit of our Stevens 47 Totem have cost us the window of opportunity for sailing to the South Pacific this year. G’bye, pamplemousse; so long, poisson cru.

We can see so many birds from our window. Street cat Banshee is getting very comfortable living at the casita. Behan Gifford

Our crew has anticipated returning to those most spectacular of cruising grounds for months, ever since we received permission to arrive from French Polynesia’s maritime authority in September. We feel pandemic stagnation weighing on our nomadic outlook, and all aboard are eager for the stagnation weight to vanish in our wake.


We expected to put Totem in the water in March, spend a month shaking down new systems as we sailed south to La Paz, Mexico, and then depart from southern Baja for the Marquesas in April. Our schedule has slowly pushed forward month by month. We figured out how we could leave in May, and then in June, but now, we can’t push it out any farther. Hurricane season encroaches. 

I’m not going to lie: It hurt to give up this itinerary. But after some demoralized days of processing, I’m over it (mostly). We have no right to complain about our very privileged problems. 

Supplies headed to Ukraine. Brent Troncalli

I credit cruising for giving us flexibility and patience, and an appreciation for what we have. In case further perspective was needed, we learned recently about a former coaching client (their cruising sabbatical is over and they’re currently living in Eastern Europe) who is buying bulk goods and helping to transport them to Poland, to benefit Ukraine. “My wife and I are buying supplies for the soldiers and the people in Ukraine that chose to stay,” he told us. “Mostly, we are buying things like diapers, feminine products, first-aid supplies and ready-to-eat food. We then deliver the supplies to a train on the Polish border that goes under the cover of darkness into Ukraine.” 


Our lives are so good.

After all, more time in Peñasco, Mexico, means enjoying what must be the loveliest weather of the year. It’s a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit by day, with cooler nights. Windows stay open at our casita; I can work while listening to birds twitter in the dappled sunlight from trees that shade the view. 

Regular trips to Phoenix with a girlfriend mean spotting cactus blooms. These trips keep us in bagels, salmon and kale—and, oh yes, Girl Scout cookies, which are underappreciated until they are out of reach. I can access the US market variety and value for any needs we have on Totem, from epoxy to orbital sanders (my husband, Jamie, is on his third sander). More time in Peñasco means appreciating access to this bounty, to the roadside wildflowers, to the buds appearing on the crowns of the saguaro sentinels marking the path between the sea and Phoenix. 

Starki was lucky patient number 30,000 at the clinic. He wore his birthday hat patiently, and the clinic even made a small video! Behan Gifford

More time in Peñasco also means more days assisting in post-op services at the Clinica Esperanza, a free veterinary and spay/neuter clinic. This past week, they fixed puppy number 30,000 since they opened in 2015. I’m so proud that my daughter, Siobhan, and I can be a tiny supporting part of the smart, fun, caring, committed team that runs the show. Somebody has to help stick thermometers in all those dog and cat butts; might as well be us. (They are 80 percent supported by direct donations, so give to Compassion Without Borders if you are so moved.)

Foreman Jorge and Jamie
Foreman Jorge and Jamie confer on galley decisions. Behan Gifford

And, more time in Peñasco means experiencing small-town coincidences: A resident recommended a donut shop on the far north side of town. We picked up a box to bring to the staff at the clinica, and learn that the donut shop owner’s family used to have a restaurant in the same building as the clinic, years ago. Of course, I had to share a photo of what used to be the walk-in cooler for their restaurant, which is now where the cats are crated.

Not everything is rosy. Not bad, just the stuff of life.


We have a Google Fi family plan shared among a few phones. Last week, Siobhan got the dreaded cutoff message. 

Google Fi message
The dreaded but not unexpected Google Fi message. Behan Gifford

I used to think Fi was the best phone plan ever for cruisers, but the service has cracked down on international use (as with every other US carrier, full-time international use is not part of the plan). I had a trip up to Arizona planned a few days later, so I tucked Siobhan’s phone into a bag and, once in the range of the border, streamed videos of whatever K-pop playlist I could find, to log some US cell-tower time and data use. Will it be enough? We’ll know soon.

Totem’s galley takes shape. Behan Gifford

Some days at the clinica are harder. People bring in animals who have been hit by cars, or in fights. I picked 30 ticks out of one ear on one dog the other day. I laid hands on an injured cat while he got euthanized, hoping to ease him out more gently. 

There’s exhaustion. Jamie’s exhaustion is physical and intense, since he bears the brunt of Totem’s interior effort. My exhaustion is mental, juggling many hats when I’d rather be looking at our weather forecast than succumbing to decision fatigue on the galley sole (I wish I could make better decisions, and make them faster).

Cork samples
Cork samples for the galley redesign. Behan Gifford

We’re moving forward one day at a time. Eventually, there will be an estimated time of arrival for Totem’s new engine, and that will help immensely with concrete plans.

We’re also contemplating something truly radical for our family: a vacation. Years in the tropics have made our daughters wistful for higher-latitude climates. We’re considering options from Iceland to Scotland to Ireland, all new territory. Hookups to a Scottish Highlands cabin are welcome.

How To Get To Japan
Dreaming of cruising again! This is our next version of How To Get To Japan. Behan Gifford

For Totem’s future route, while our daughters were especially excited about French Polynesia (they were too young to remember it from our first pass), they’re even more excited about the western Pacific and Japan. We’ve played out multiple scenarios that would get us to Japan, and that’s something to be excited about.

Here are some of the topics we’re thinking about now: how to keep a cell number and use international data; whether it’s worth the space to have a printer on board; the new lithium battery bank on Totem; mail services for cruising (and how to get stuff along the way); fitting a washing machine on board. That should keep us busy in the boat yard!

Buy basic items for Ukrainians. Want to help our friends in the Czech Republic with their mission? Send us an email and we’ll pass the PayPal information along.

Give street dogs and cats a better life. Clinica La Esperanza is part of Compassion Without Borders. See their website for more information.