Sailing Totem: Sunsets And Rainbows And A Lot Of Work

Ah, the cruising life! Swinging in a hammock, sipping fruity rum drinks, soaking in a spectacular view. Well, that happens sometimes…

February 25, 2020
Making a call from the sailboat
Remarkable to have stumbled in the rewarding work of coaching! Kids help with a call; 2017. Behan Gifford

Focusing entirely on life afloat as a family was a luxury we had as new cruisers. Although we were theoretically retired (for the first time!), it astounded me how much of our time was occupied by activities that would not be considered leisure. Homeschooling was just one little piece of it. The flow of activity was a sine wave alternating busier days with more recreational ones, but in general, the hours fill up with non-leisure activity more quickly than we anticipated as pre-cruisers.

Our experience is typical, and it makes sense when you consider the time-saving conveniences that disappear overnight when moving aboard. There’s no car to run off to the store with for a forgotten item. Shopping bags are carried after a longer trip on foot or by bus instead of tossed in the back of a vehicle. There’s no dishwasher, microwave, rice cooker, InstantPot, whatever. We do finally have a washing machine but it holds a fraction of the capacity of a standard household washer. We can’t count on easy information and entertainment from the internet, because we can’t count on internet access. The things we need are harder to source and acquire. In a world where instant gratification is the norm, slow living can feel awkward at first.

Doing laundry off the coast of Madagascar
Laundry day, Madagascar; 2015. Behan Gifford

The first year is often the hardest as the transition from land life to cruising life takes those dreamy expectations and grinds their pretty faces into the sandy beach of reality. For families, it’s especially challenging as most of us aren’t used to 24×7 kid management: whether it’s school, or day care, or after care, or a neighbor, there are a lot of kid-free hours available for chores or me-time that vanish overnight.

Sunset off Australian coast
Friends, wine and an Australian sunset – 2012. Behan Gifford

The fact that simple tasks all takes longer is OK: time is what we have, and what most of us traded land-life for! It’s just sometimes jarring when experiencing slow living in real life instead of in theory. One friend pointed out that “…boatschool, meeting kids’ needs, and the fundamentals of shopping/cleaning/cooking/laundry take up all my time.” That didn’t include time for exploring, time underway, and boat projects. Another echoed, but offered that “at least the coffee breaks are longer.” There’s a good reason why many well-intentioned bloggers and YouTubers fizzle out once cruising begins!

Fast-forward a decade: the experience we’ve gained eases our everyday life, but new roles make life even busier. No longer retired, a mix of part-time work streams keeps us financially afloat. For the first time in years, I wake up composing emails in my head. I have to keep a calendar for meetings and deadlines. I still haven’t considered wearing a watch, though!

Working on the sailboat Totem
There’s always something…aboard Totem, 2008. Behan Gifford

About a year ago, I jotted down a list of the different hats I wear during a particularly difficult afternoon. As the name suggests, it was on a particularly trying day. If nothing else, it puts definition to the question of—how busy, really, is this beautiful life?



Except it’s more like … ten. Ten jobs. In no particular order:

  • Coach / mentor
  • Freelance writer
  • Freelance editor
  • Magazine ad sales rep
  • Blogger
  • Public speaker
  • Boat swab
  • Homeschool parent
  • Elder care supporter
  • Spouse/partner & mother

The simple line of “boat swab” includes a range from maintenance to administrative tasks (I have dedicated a crazy number of hours to investigating insurance recently). Jamie’s list would look a little different, but it’s not any lighter. He overlaps on most of these roles, and adds in hours as a consulting sailmaker while overwhelmingly owning the maintenance on Totem. Added to both of our plates currently: the massive prep for our long and remote passages planned for this year…and the opportunity for cash-in-hand work we can’t pass up to help others with their preparations. Thank goodness we raised a crew who now handle dishes, laundry, and help with meals!

Niall carrying groceries in Mexico
Niall helps carry groceries; La Cruz, Mexico, 2009. Behan Gifford

I’m only sort of making light about the teens’ contribution; it is real, as even simple everyday tasks like these add up. I’ve been to the nearest supermarket exactly once in the last month because it takes half of a day, and I’m limited to what I carry on my back. But the kids can pick things up from a local shop with a list and some pesos. They’ve owned dishwashing duty since they needed a stepstool to reach the sink, a time-consuming process given it’s all done by hand with an eye to water conservation. Laundry is their job, too: faster now that we use a small machine instead of a bucket, but it still takes monitoring and time and getting everything on the lifelines to dry (and in before a squall).

Working and cruising: compatible?

Don’t let me give the wrong impression. I love this life, and I believe that navigating a balance between working and cruising is a privilege. Even the tough days are better than commuting to a desk job and not seeing enough of my family! I’m so grateful we have found a way to this enviable place.

Tortoise on St. Helena
Time to explore. St. Helena, 2016. Behan Gifford

In recent weeks we’ve had a couple of conversations about whether it’s possible to work and cruise. It’s possible, but it’s not easy, and comes with tradeoffs. One of our coaching clients drew on the challenges it presented their family when commenting in a busy thread on our mentoring group about working and cruising: “Overall, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t do it. Make a plan that includes only cruising.” I’d adapt that to say—make a plan that includes only cruising for the first couple of years. At that point, you’ll have learned a tremendous amount about what you can/can’t do, and at least as importantly, what you want to do.

Wearing flips flops in the snow
Even grateful when wearing flips flops in below freezing temps for the boat show! Toronto; 2020. Behan Gifford

The remote-work potential is real, but the pull of other boat needs, of schedules (does the forecast thwart your need to sail to better Wi-Fi?), competes in ways that make it a challenging task to do both well—and a nearly impossible one when trying to find rhythm as a new cruiser. Live aboard in a beautiful place and work, maybe, or accept that the job may not be accomplished to the desired standard. It’s better not to start with the pressure at all, if possible.

Making Compromises

Our choice to manage working while cruising means tradeoffs. Smart weather choices and boat safety always come first. Our route is by necessity influenced by internet access points. It’s been easy in Mexico this last stretch; it won’t be on the next phase of our adventures afloat across the Pacific. But this compromise is easy to accept. It still means watching sunsets from the cockpit more nights than not; it means exploring the world with my family, and a fulfilling way life we are so incredibly fortunate to have.


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