Sailing Totem: Going in the Face of Uncertainty

Taking the cruising leap has always been filled with uncertainty, but now would-be cruisers have the COVID pandemic added to the mix.

July 28, 2020
Golden Gate
Taking our children under the Golden Gate. Behan Gifford

Cheering on a family beginning their cruising dreams this morning, I imagined the wonders in store for them and thought about our steps south. In just a few weeks we have our “cruisiversary,” that date in 2008 that we left the dock on Bainbridge Island and headed out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Mexico and beyond. For all the challenges of transition, it was a magical time.

On our way south, we had so many Firsts. First overnight passages on Totem as a family! First squall at anchor. First time sailing into San Francisco Bay—my hometown—under the iconic Golden Gate bridge! First time the kids got seasick. A spectrum of new experiences brought a crisp new edge to daily life: everything just a little bit shinier, sharper, sweeter. Every step entirely at our discretion. Every day held unexpected delights, and sometimes, unexpected challenges. Even the mundane felt brighter in our sparkly new nomadic life.

Channel islands
Channel islands hike; 2008. We worried about leaving Totem for even a few hours. Behan Gifford

Before we went cruising, most of my life was pretty scripted. I went to college, fell in love, had a first job, went to grad school, married my love, started a career, started a family, moved to a good school district. Doing the “right” things to live a low-risk life that minimized uncertainty and set up for whatever our culture considers success: financial comfort, a lovely home, a nurtured family. Security and predictability, hallmarks of a good life?


As we worked our way down the West Coast and embraced the new chapter, that beautiful, terrible script was torn to shreds and cast away. 

For all that the cruising dream beckoned, stepping away from the familiar path was still difficult. Partly for the conflict with a carefully mapped existence, partly for how stepping away from the conventional path defied societal expectations. Cleaving to convention is rewarded; choosing to be different is hard. It starts when you share your burgeoning, thrilling news with a friend who says “…but what about storms?” or wonders aloud about piracy, and every parent’s favorite: “are you sure this is good for your children?” 

Oregon coast
Sunset off the Oregon coast: southbound in 2008. Jamie’s beard didn’t last the year! Behan Gifford

Add to all the negative lines of questioning now: “…but what about COVID?”


Well, what about it? Obviously, the pandemic has brought a new facet to the challenge transitioning into cruising. For Americans, it doesn’t help that our failure to respond has landed the US passport on Persona Non Grata lists all over the world. But what are the ways this could play out? 

The cruising life has taught us to be more comfortable with uncertainty. Living under a pandemic has forced uncertainty on people who generally aren’t accustomed to it, and weren’t quite ready to mix a double-dose into cruising dream. For those on the cusp of cruising, the emotional weight is postponing plans. 

San Juanico
Our barren, yet teeming-with-life anchorage. Behan Gifford

Everybody would like a crystal ball right about now, and I can only speculate. But for hopeful cruisers on the US West Coast, Mexico is open. Yes, there are ample restrictions, but ports aren’t closed, life is good, and there has never been a toilet paper shortage. For those on the US East Coast, the coastal options are extensive—and the Bahamas has demonstrated sensible restrictions, and likely prospects for next winter. In the Caribbean—where we have several clients in the process of remotely shopping for boats—there are protocols to facilitate moving between many islands. It’s not cruising as usual, but perhaps more attractive than not-cruising for another year.

working clay
Beachcombing treasure, and working clay gleaned from behind the beach: anyone have tips?! Behan Gifford

Pandemic uncertainty has challenged everyone differently, but I believe it’s been easier than if we hadn’t been conditioned over the years to adapt to new and unfamiliar circumstances. For the new cruisers, I want to shout from the far side of the gorge: IT’S BEAUTIFUL HERE! TAKE THE LEAP! Because uncertainty awaits, regardless. A freshman year of cruising will still hold challenges, but breaking out for a nomadic life afloat will still deliver rewards, too. 

Comet Neowise
Comet Neowise arcs over our Baja California Sur anchorage. Behan Gifford

Totem Talks

Mairen and Siobhan dolphin-spotting on our way in for this week’s veggie delivery. Behan Gifford

Next up: ASK US ANYTHING! We’re shucking the convention of a thematic livestream to cover whatever questions people would care to throw our way. Details to register (or watch last weekend’s hello, hurricane season event) on our Events page.


More People