Storm over parents’ judgment after sailing trip with toddlers ends in rescue at sea

Los Angeles: As her family began what was supposed to be a months-long journey in a 10-metre sailboat from Mexico to New Zealand, Charlotte Kaufman wrote openly of her misgivings about taking her two daughters – ages one and three – to sail the South Pacific, with her husband as captain and herself as the crew.

"I think this may be the stupidest thing we have ever done," she wrote in her trip blog, before concluding: "It is a difficult self-imposed isolation that is completely worth it."

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Less than two weeks later, 1440 kilometres off the coast of Mexico, Charlotte and her husband, Eric, unable to steer their ship, the Rebel Heart, called for emergency help. Their younger daughter, Lyra, who had been treated for salmonella just weeks before the trip, was covered in a rash and had a fever. After a complicated rescue effort by the California Air National Guard and the US Navy and Coast Guard, the Kaufman family was on a navy ship heading to San Diego, scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

But well before they set foot on dry land, the Kaufmans have become the focus of a raging debate over responsible parenting. Some readers of their blogs have left blistering comments suggesting the authorities should take their children away, seizing on such details in Charlotte Kaufman's postings as the baby rolling around and unable to sleep because of the ship's violent pitch, and soiled diapers being washed in the galley sink.

Experienced sailors have also shaken their heads.

"I have a rule in my mind that I would never bring a kid less than two years old," Matt Rutherford, who has completed several solo journeys across the seas and is planning to sail to Japan from northern California this month, said in an interview. "There's some real risks here, and you bring somebody else along and you're taking the risk for them, too. That's a serious question."


Still, other observers said the family was doing the right thing by following their passion and involving their children early. Pam Wall, who began sailing with her children when they were infants and travelled around the world with them for nearly seven years, said the Kaufman family – whom she does not know – had seemed to take the necessary precautions. "There were probably a series of events that two people just couldn't handle," said Ms Wall, who has served as a consultant for dozens of families contemplating similar trips.

But critics have borne down not only on the couple's parenting judgment but also on their qualifications as sailors and the expense involved in their rescue. Some have called for them to be forced to pay the tab. The rescue effort involved three state and federal agencies, and had California Air National guardsmen parachuting from helicopters into open waters to escort the family into inflatable boats before their ship was sunk on purpose.

The couple had spent months preparing for the ocean crossing. They chose a route that is generally considered safe by experienced sailors – travelling along trade winds and waiting for the right conditions.

Just days before they were to set sail, Charlotte Kaufman and Lyra were told they had salmonella and given antibiotics. They postponed the trip for a couple of weeks and apparently had clearance from their family doctor in a small town on the coast of the state of Nayarit, Mexico, where they had been living since last year preparing for the trip.

Dr Beth E. Ebel, an attending physician at Seattle Children's Hospital, said it would not be unreasonable to take children on such a trip. "I think people should take the big important precautions, like wearing life jackets, but I don't fault them for being out of instant touch with modern medicine," she said. "It's our job to be prepared and to have a back-up plan. It sounds like they needed their backup plan and executed it."

Some family members questioned their actions. Charlotte Kaufman's brother, James Moriset, told a television station that he refused to send them off. 

"I don't even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it's like taking them out into the big ocean?" he said.

In a statement issued from aboard the navy ship, the Kaufmans vigorously defended their actions.

"When we departed on this journey more than a year ago, we were then and remain today confident that we prepared as well as any sailing crew could," the couple wrote.

New York Times