Skip to main content

Daring rescue raises questions about sailing offshore with kids

When Charlotte Kaufman pushed the button on Rebel Heart’s EPIRB, summoning help for her sick 1-year-old daughter, neither she nor her husband, Eric, anticipated the storm of controversy that would accompany the rescuers as they rushed to the family’s sailboat 900 miles off Mexico.

Image placeholder title

Less than two weeks into a voyage to New Zealand, the family of four was rescued in a complicated operation involving the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing. A special four-man team parachuted from an MC-130P Combat Shadow plane to tend to the seriously ill child, who had a fever and was covered in a rash.

Their youngest daughter, Lyra, who had been treated for salmonella about a week before the voyage started, has recovered. Rebel Heart, the Hans Christian 36 that served as the Kaufmans’ home for 8 years, is gone — abandoned, scuttled for safety reasons and sitting on the bottom. And the heated debate about the Kaufmans’ decision to sail offshore with an infant and a 3-year-old continues to swirl in the blogosphere and chat rooms, on websites and the pages of newspapers large and small.

Parents and non-parents, sailors and landlubbers alike, have weighed in. Some have labeled the Kaufmans irresponsible, with the most ardent critics suggesting the children be taken from their parents. Others have questioned whether the sailors had the experience to undertake a long offshore voyage. And there have been more than a few suggestions that the Kaufmans be charged for the cost of the rescue, with estimates running into the high six figures for the four aircraft and the Navy frigate involved.

Plenty of sympathetic voices have emerged, as well, including sailors who have cruised safely with young children. And there is a crowd-sourcing effort under way to raise money for the family.

“Many of my friends and family have expressed anger at the mean-spirited comments that have been left on our blog by complete strangers,” Charlotte Kaufman wrote in one of her postings. “Please, friends, do not dismay. We will slowly delete all the comments from the Internet armchair quarterbacks who know nothing about us, our life, our skills, or, I might add, sailing.”

One of the positives that came out of all the post-rescue noise was the voices extolling the virtues of a cruising lifestyle with children. The New York Times ran several stories about boating with youngsters, including a sidebar on boating safety for kids. That’s all good.

And it got people thinking and talking. I asked my wife, who sailed across the Atlantic at 22, whether she would have entertained the idea of sailing offshore with our two children at ages 1 and 3. “No,” Patty said without hesitating. “Raising kids on a boat is one thing. I’m all for that. Taking them across the Pacific is another. Little kids get sick. Coastal cruising makes sense. You can duck into port if something goes wrong. And you can have your adventure. Why do you have to take them offshore so young?”

ICW blogger Wally Moran was a sympathetic voice for the embattled cruisers. “A lot of what has been said was inaccurate,” says Moran, a longtime cruising sailor. “The boat was well equipped. The parents knew what they were doing. And they made the right calls at the right time.”

Soundings sailing columnist Dieter Loibner took a more hard-line approach. He fears that contemporary culture encourages a “nanny state” mindset, one in which people take adventures without the requisite skills or experience because they know help is just a push of the button away.

“If there were a price tag attached to your rescue — a percent of the cost, say — would you still do it?” Loibner asks. “Would you still go out there without your Spot or your sat phone or EPIRB? Would you still be doing it if you knew no one was going to come? That should be the baseline for your decision. Do I have the competence to get myself back safely if something happens?”

Outfits such as the 129th Rescue Wing have shown time and again that they are capable of pulling off remarkable Timbuktu rescues. If you cry “uncle” these days, odds are someone will be dashing out to find you, no matter the risk to themselves.

Whether this extension of the government safety net farther offshore erodes our self-sufficiency and sea skills remains an open question. None of us wants that.

“There are no poetry-

enshrined freighters

on the sea now.”

- Joshua Slocum

June 2014 issue