Vagabonding Case Study: Behan Gifford

On December 11th, 2015

Behan Gifford of Sailing TotemBehan Gifford - Indonesia 2013

Age: 44

Hometown: Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

Quote: At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much. -Robin Lee Graham

How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip? I first encountered Vagabonding via Vagablogging, after we’d departed on our trip: it’s an inspiration place to connect and learn from the perspectives of other vagabond-style travelers like our family. A place for inspiration and a place where I can go to find my virtual tribe, and feel a little less crazy.

How long were you on the road?
So far, it’s been six years, ten weeks, one day…and counting!

Where did you go?
I travel via sailboat, with my family. We sailed first from the US to Mexico and spent a year and a half along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Ready for a blue horizon, sailed south and west across the Pacific (via many islands), paused in Australia to put some coin back in our pockets, and later  sailed up through Papua New Guinea and into Southeast Asia.

What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey?
Prior to departure, I worked in digital  media, and my husband worked in medical equipment. We saved hard for about six years and lived off our savings for the first few years. Those savings are long gone: our ongoing travels are funded through freelance writing, and from my husband’s work as a sailmaker.

Did you work or volunteer on the road?
We look for opportunities as we go: traveling as a family with three children closes a few doors but opens others. Having kids, it’s most typical for us is to seek opportunities to volunteer in schools along the way. We’ve taught English language classes, brought a microscope and prepared slides we carry for science classes, or just cultural exchanges to talk about our travels.

Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite?
It is impossible to play favorites, and our family is always changing up the mix of favorites as our travels continue. The crowd favorite vacillates between Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, or the uninhabited Suwarrow atoll in the Cook Islands. Personally, I keep coming back to the little islands off Papua New Guinea where we spent several months sailing in 2012. It is by far the most removed from the cultural context I grew up with, a beautiful place with a dark side that prompted a lot of introspection… while surrounded by friendly people in a stunning environment.

Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging?
We expected to like Australia much more than we did, and I suppose that was disappointing, but this may also be attributed to the shift from nomadic living to stationary land-job-tied living, which no longer fit us very well. It was also challenging in its false familiarity: we were in a place where people looked more like us, and talked kind of like us, but could have startlingly different cultural norms.

Which travel gear proved most useful?  Least useful?
A tablet is invaluable for us: it is a navigation tool, with nautical charts of the world, it is the communication device that lets us phone home, and of course, it’s excellent for entertainment. We used to joke about using “iPad diplomacy” to befriend kids of all ages in some of the islands where we had few words in common. Imagine introduce touch screen navigation to someone who hasn’t seen a computer before through a couple of visual games.

What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle?
We can live our ideals, which is tremendously rewarding. We wanted to live close to nature, sourcing power through the sun and wind, and raise our children in tune with the environment. This lifestyle allows them to grow up as citizens of the world with a broader view of the opportunities and challenge that presents.

What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle?
It’s hard for me to be far away from friends and family that Iove. We can’t afford to go home for visits, so we miss them a great deal. We don’t get to go to the graduations and weddings and funerals. I miss being present to comfort a friend dying of cancer. I miss the little ways friends get to help each other out.

What lessons did you learn on the road?
How incredibly lucky I am to have won the lottery in life, with health, education, opportunity, that allows me to follow this path.

How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip?
It’s evolved as we’ve developed an identity as more permanent travelers. Home becomes more and more the place we create in the circle around our family, wherever we are. I still feel a bond to our origin home- Bainbridge Island, Washington, and to friends there- but I have come to acknowledge that I make this home in every stop along the way now as well.

If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be?
Save more and start sooner- your life is waiting!

Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure?
The hardest part is taking the leap. Think very, very hard about whatever you think is more important right now, that’s preventing you from adventuring, in the context of looking back on your life in 20 years. If you still want to go, set a date. Having a date to depart is a powerful way to mentally line your life up around the goal of vagabonding and will trickle down to influence the everday choices you make to close the distance to your departure.

When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey?
I’m incredibly grateful to still be on the journey. But even ongoing journeys have their inflection points, and I have a big one coming up in just a few months. After spending a year along the Andaman coast of peninsular Malaysia and Thailand, in January I sail west, bound for Sri Lanka in the first stage of a ten month voyage to Africa.

Read more about Behan on her website, Sailing Totem.

Are you a Vagabonding reader planning, in the middle of, or returning from a journey? Would you like your travel blog or website to be featured on Vagabonding Case Studies? If so, drop us a line at and tell us a little about yourself.

Ready plan a Round The World adventure?

Image: Linda (flickr)