Tiny Tuesday: This Family Lives On a Sailboat

The Giffords enjoy cruising. They’ve been doing it nonstop for the last nine years.

This family of five lives aboard a 47-foot yacht named Totem. They have circumnavigated the Earth, spent months at a time in Mexico and Indonesia and Australia, and shoehorned their possessions into a space they call “the equivalent of a floating tiny house.” The three kids make friends with whomever they meet onshore; instead of homeschool they attend Boat School, a combination of online courses and the hands-on learning that comes from maintaining a sailboat and seeing the world. Their parents, Jamie and Behan, earn what they call a “poverty-level income” through sailmaking, freelance writing, and consulting with others who wish to duplicate their lifestyle.

In this video, featured on Business Insider, the family members show how they take care of their necessities. They fight cabin fever by staying outside as much as possible – above deck, and the world outside, functions as their living room. They get most of their electricity from three solar panels and two wind turbines onboard, and they use a solar oven for cooking whenever possible to save fuel. The boat’s engine hides under a kitchen counter. Their laundry machine is a five-gallon bucket – “it’s not fun,” says Behan. Regarding the bathroom, they dispose overboard when it’s safe to do so, and store the waste otherwise.

If the video inspires curiosity, then Behan’s website, Sailing Totem, can answer many further questions. The Provisioning section explains how the Giffords stock up on food and fresh water anywhere in the world on a budget. (I wonder how far they can travel without a stop – the Pacific Ocean is awfully big and mostly empty!) Behan also offers advice on how to get started with a cruising lifestyle, how to choose a boat, how to how to obtain medical help in a foreign country, and what to do all day during a passage. And, yes, how to downsize.


Thanksgiving dinner onboard Totem. (photo credits: Behan Gifford, flickr)


Tiny Tuesday: The Notion Skoolie

Here’s another fun one. A group of extreme skiers from the University of Vermont renovated a school bus into a traveling home so they can seek out the continent’s best powder. Team Notion’s blue skoolie has a kitchenette, a tiny wood-burning stove, and bunks to sleep seven. Check out their video from last year – just a taste of the adventures they’re planning for the coming season.

Compared to the Outdoor Research-sponsored tiny house for ski bumming, Team Notion’s abode on wheels is more functional than pretty on the inside. I like how they can open the rear for equipment storage. The bus still lacks a bathroom, which means the team relies on gas stations and the ski resorts for their hygienic needs. And they might consult this list of free overnight parking lots before they decide where to ski. (Then again, maybe they don’t bother.) Fuel economy is probably in the low 10s, and lift ticket prices are through the roof, so this sort of adventure only makes sense with a sponsorship.

But none of that matters when you’re having this much fun, right?


It gets cold in the winter.

Monthly Mechanics: Where Do I Start?

I was describing my job to a new acquaintance, and he asked me, “When you start a new project, what’s the first thing you do?” Indeed, Monthly Mechanics has explored every part of the design process, but rarely discussed the order. So, here is a flowchart.


Step 1: Make a model. What are the components of your structure? Components of a building include the roof, the walls, the floors, and the foundation. Components of a bridge might include the deck, the stringers, the piers, and again the foundation. A rough sketch of the structure helps to identify what parts you need to design, and (importantly!) enables you to define the scope of work with your client.

There are archetypes for the most common components. A beam, such as a deck joist or roof rafter, is basically a line. A column is also a line, but it’s loaded at the top rather than on the side. A floor might be a rectangle. A column foundation is a point. It takes some practice to see the shapes – your best bet is to think about where the loads are coming from and how the loads push, pull, twist, or bend each component. You’ll notice what paths the loads take through your structure while building your model.

This is also the time to identify the failure modes you’ll need to check. Are the beams loaded along one side (like a joist supporting a floor, with loads only from above) or along two sides (like a bridge girder supporting a deck weight and a simultaneous wind load)? Are they continuous over a central support? (If so, you’ll need to check negative bending over the support in addition to positive bending at midspan.) Do they experience any tension or compression, or only flexure?

Step 2: Determine the loads and distribute them. Right away you’ll notice that different components experience the loads in different ways. For example, one- and two-family housing is designed with a live load of 40 psf. That weight is a uniform load on the plywood subfloor, and it’s distributed down to the floor joists according to their tributary area. Following the load path, a wall or column receives that same live load as a reaction from the joist ends – a concentrated load.

Once you’ve identified all the loads, apply load combinations. Check building codes to determine how your jurisdiction adds loads together, and calculate all possibilities. It’s prudent to determine the governing load combination for vertical loads (dead, live, snow) as well as for horizontal loads (wind, seismic). Some load combinations emphasize live load; others give extra weight to atmospherics like snow and wind; still others minimize downward forces to test for uplift.

Sometimes while you’re determining the loads, you’ll realize that your model is too simplified. In that case, return to Step 1.

Step 3: Figure out how to support the loads. If you’re designing a floor joist, you might start by looking at dimensional lumber. Choose a size and species – maybe a southern pine 2×10 – and calculate the stress for all the failure modes you’re checking – perhaps flexure, shear, and bearing at the support. (This is called the stress required.) Compare it with the beam’s strength – found in material-specific manuals such as the National Design Specification for Wood Construction. (The strength is also called the stress provided.) If the stress required exceeds the stress provided, then you’ll need to choose a stronger beam – maybe a 2×12, or an LVL, or a steel beam. If the stress provided exceeds the stress required by a long shot, then you can economize by choosing a smaller beam.

Design is an iterative process. Repeat Step 3 until you close in on the Goldilocks beam – the shallowest, lightest, or least expensive member whose strength still exceeds the stress required. Then proceed down the load path.

Anyone can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands.
-Colin Chapman (maybe)