Sailing Totem: The Best Gifts Are Often the Unexpected Ones

Behan Gifford’s and the Totem crew’s holiday visit with family in Arizona takes a surprising, happy turn.

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The Gifford family all together last year onboard Totem, in Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur. This was the last time we were all together, before this holiday’s beautiful surprise. Behan Gifford

For several months we’ve looked forward to joining family in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the holidays. The visit provides us the opportunity to see my brother, sister-in-law and our niece for the first time in two years; my father planned to fly down from Puget Sound to join us. We are ridiculously practical folk, so we planned to visit Arizona the week before Christmas and head back to Mexico December 23. The airfares for dates before Christmas were significantly less than Christmas week; besides, the exact dates don’t matter to us as much as being together as a family.

Three days into our visit, as we were pouring our morning coffee in the kitchen, my father entered the room and announced he had another gift for us. Out from behind him stepped our son, Niall, who we haven’t seen in almost a year!

Behan family
It’s been almost a year since we could take a picture like this. From left: Behan, Niall, Mairen, Jamie, and Siobhan Gifford. Behan Gifford

There aren’t any pictures of his arrival because I just didn’t have the mental capacity for more than shrieks and hugs and incredulity for quite some time. My dad took our dreams for family time together to the next level and was justifiably proud of himself. We were overwhelmed in the best way possible.

Christmas holiday
Behan Gifford with her father and brother in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the Christmas holiday. Behan Gifford

A while time later, I moved into practical mom mode and felt guilty that we didn’t have a single gift for Niall. As much as the holidays are about everything else, having a few thoughtful gifts tucked into our legacy stockings (Niall’s is an old preschool project and is adorable) is still an important part of the holiday. We were expecting to have a late holiday with Niall and his girlfriend a few weeks after Christmas, in the new year. For our unexpected Arizona reunion with Niall, we brainstormed and came up with some last minute gifts. Here are a few ideas for those celebrating late into the year, or for any surprise celebrations with your crew.

Mairen and Niall
Mairen and Niall catch up in the kitchen of our Scottsdale Airbnb. Behan Gifford

Homemade gifts

Time might be the most precious gift we can give each other. We have a few jars of homemade jam from my aunties Julie and Gloria and we appreciate the time invested to make these gifts.  We’ll open one of the jams as part of this year’s holiday celebration. A quick web search for gifts in jars provides multiple ideas for homemade gifts.

luminaria walk
Strolling the Desert Botanical Garden’s luminaria walk, near Phoenix, Arizona. Behan Gifford

Gift certificates

Niall will find one of these in his stocking. We’ll give him a gift certificate for a dinner out in Portland, Oregon; he loves good food and we know he will enjoy a night out with his girlfriend, Julia. In the past, we’ve enjoyed making coupon book gift certificates. The certificates can be cashed in by the bearer for things like choosing the movie on family movie night, or getting a pass on dishwashing duty, and more.


Streaming gifts

Sonoran Desert
Learning about saguaro on a ranger-led hike in the Sonoran Desert. Still can’t believe it’s Niall! Behan Gifford

Dependable internet access isn’t ubiquitous in the cruising world, but if you have it, it makes gifting spontaneity a lot easier. How about downloading or streaming a sailing movie? This week I caught up with sailing legend Lin Pardey. For Pardey devotees, the new documentary about her husband, Larry – The Real Deal is a must-see. The documentary includes a great look at the intense challenge of “doubling the Horn” – a reference to the route they took at the pointy end of South America. All profits go to the Larry Pardey Memorial observatory at Camp Bentzon, Kawau, New Zealand.


One of the best gifts we’ve gotten in recent years was actually from Niall; he gave our family a premium Spotify subscription. This year, we surprised Jamie with playlists of all of his favorite songs. It’s fun to share our playlists and nice to connect with family and friends through music when we aren’t together. This makes a great family gift.


Books are another downloadable, last-minute-gift made easier by the internet. While we love our physical books, the number of them onboard has consistently shrunk while our ebook libraries have grown. We have a bunch of new book ideas after our family gathering in Arizona, and Jamie and I will pick out a couple of titles for Niall. Here’s a link for recommended books for cruising.

Soaking up cousin time at our Airbnb in Scottsdale. Behan Gifford


If this time of year does one thing really well, it’s that it reminds me of how absurdly fortunate we are. Take time to share by giving funds or time. Maybe there’s a place to volunteer where you can serve meals nearby. Your recipient may not realize this is a gift, but I promise it is. We’re going to make a donation to help folks devastated by the recent cyclone in Palawan, the Philippines. Our friend Brian Tennant set this GiveALittle fundraiser up from his home in New Zealand. Thanks to his local connections, we know it will put relief directly into the hands of people who need it.

Chihuly exhibit
Visiting the Chihuly exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden near Phoenix, Arizona. This Chihuly piece is more than 75 feet tall. Behan Gifford

We hope the next few days will be blissfully low-key and we’ll embrace our family time together. I’ll leave you with the picture we took the last time we saw Niall – almost 12 months ago – when he was aboard Totem in Santa Rosalia, in Baja California Sur.


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