Sailing Totem: World Schooling

A life that normalizes change and adaptation is the one we want for our family.
Niall and Izelle
Niall holds his second cousin, Izelle, while my dad stands proud in his Totem T-shirt. Claire Suni

Last month, my husband, Jamie, and I, along with our daughters, Siobhan and Mairen, traveled from the boatyard in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, where our Stevens 47 Totem is undergoing a 40-year-refit. We headed to the Pacific Northwest to attend the graduation of our son, Niall, from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and to catch up with loved ones in the region.

The trip was filled with the kind of incredible moments that travel brings, and reminded me how lucky we are that a steady stream of differentiated experiences are the drumbeat of our life. We drove through territory that, in theory, was familiar to us, but many of the miles were no longer familiar or had become jarringly different. 

A fellow traveler in her cool school bus on the eastern slope of the Sierras. Behan Gifford

It’s often outside of our comfort zone that our eyes are opened to new realizations. Call it world schooling, boat schooling or homeschooling—travel facilitates a unique, remarkable education. 

Travel challenges us to adapt

Maybe the flavors are new, or the climate. Sometimes it’s local attitudes. It might be an uncomfortable situation. I remember how it felt to go ashore in a small Maldivian village, covered from head to toe—minimal skin visible—in intense tropical heat. Unapproving stares burned into the narrow skin showing at the bottom of a sleeve, or long hemline. We were intruders. 

Niall graduating
Niall graduating in flip-flops, true to himself. Behan Gifford

Sometimes, it’s adjusting to everyday interactions or etiquette. Here in Mexico, a genuine greeting is a preamble that accompanies the most basic transactions. Jumping right to business is rude.

Watching Niall graduate, we thought about the many adaptations he’s had to make in the past few years. Leaving the boat and nomadic life to be fixed in one place: Would he get bored or restless? We wondered if he’d fit in among students with conventional upbringings, who spoke slang he didn’t know and loved music he hadn’t heard. How would he find friends? Shifting from highly unstructured learning to class schedules, tests and deadlines: Could he manage? Going through on-campus lockdowns in a single dorm room with cafeteria takeout meals and classes online: Would isolation be bearable? 

He did it, with personal strength stemming from a life that normalized change and adaptation. 

This is the education we want for our children.

Travel builds self-confidence

If self-confidence is trust in your abilities and judgment, then how better to hone self-confidence than regularly putting your abilities and judgment to the test? 

cherry blossoms
Taking in the cherry blossoms with Niall’s girlfriend, Julia; Siobhan and Mairen reveled in this unfamiliar springtime delight. Behan Gifford

Our constant need to adapt provides ongoing practice. Travel forces us into situations that cultivate better understanding of ourselves: the strengths to appreciate, the weaknesses to work on. It teaches us to trust ourselves, as once again we try something new, or navigate a process without a clear road map or directions. 

registering to vote
Surrounded by family, Siobhan registers to vote on her 18th birthday. Behan Gifford

A sense of themselves, instead of being defined by others: This is the education we want for our children.

Travel fosters compassion

Experiential learning provides deeper understanding about a situation of a particular place or people. When we can encounter the relics of history, an unfamiliar culture or a natural wonder firsthand, the takeaway has vibrance. The impacts to people and place are tangible instead of elusive. 

Lewis & Clark College
Niall snaps a group photo with Mairen, Siobhan and Behan outside his dormitory at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Niall Gifford

I recall traveling through South Africa, hearing from so many people about their experiences with apartheid and its legacy, and seeing the beautiful and painful ways that a post-apartheid era has unfolded. Learning this way makes us want to do better, understand better and appreciate that there are rarely simple or easy solutions. 

Niall gives us a goodbye shaka as we wave farewell. Behan Gifford

This, truly, is the education we want for our children.

Travel engenders appreciation 

A corollary for compassion toward our fellow humans is the appreciation for the world we live in. As cruisers, we’ve been privileged to see a spectacular range of the world’s flora and fauna on a scale of grandeur that defies retelling. A volcano’s eruption nearer than the horizon, the bristles on the nose of a gray whale, the charge of uncountable dolphins coming from the horizon. 

mountain range
A stunning green conifer forest with a dead, wildfire-crisped landscape, backed by the same mountain range. Behan Gifford

Internalizing these scenes has taught us that nature is precious, beautiful, vulnerable and important to defend.

This is the education we want for our children.

Travel creates learning opportunities

When your norm is change, the manuscript of your life story is a succession of shorter, often highly differentiated chapters. Travel presents us constantly with opportunities to learn and grow. This is the education we want for ourselves. Ongoing learning and growing is our definition of a life well-lived. 

Mrs. Beesley’s Burgers
While attempting to avoid franchises and eat local, we discovered Mrs. Beesley’s Burgers and its incredible onion rings in Toledo, Washington. Behan Gifford

We are grateful to have stumbled into a way to realize it, and to help others do the same. The rewards for all of us are great. Earlier this month, during a meetup with TRU crew (our coaching community) on the shores of Puget Sound, I looked at the faces around the beach fire and thought, This is why we coach too. We hope our crew’s future as salty cruisers will bring them happiness as well. It is a privilege to ease others toward that life.

The past few months could have tested our patience, as delays with delivery of a new engine for Totem cost us the seasonal window to sail for the South Pacific. But it’s impossible to have regrets. We had this amazing opportunity instead, to help Niall celebrate.  

Puget Sound
The TRU crew beach gathering in Puget Sound. Behan Gifford

Road trips, like passages, offer the chance for reflection. But unlike passages, this one gave us the sweet chance for reconnection, to give a lot of hugs, and to play a bunch of cards and share some delicious meals with people we love.

If you’re interested in homeschooling while cruising, we have a homeschooling resource page. It includes reference books, posts about how to think about what boat schooling might look like for you, podcasts and videos, and links to posts from other cruising families that are homeschooling on board.