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Sailors recall rough seas during rescue of family

April 10, 2014

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Six days after a family of four found themselves helpless and adrift in a sailboat far into the Pacific with a vomiting, feverish 1-year-old, a Navy warship delivered them safely Wednesday to San Diego, where they began their attempted around-the world voyage before the child was born.

The Rebel Heart, the 36-foot sailboat that had been their home for seven years, is at the bottom of the ocean 900 miles off Mexico, sunk by rescuers because it was taking on water after losing its steering and most of its communications.

A satellite phone ping from the boat Thursday set off a huge rescue effort that involved skydiving National Guardsmen, three federal agencies, a plane, a frigate and scores of personnel.

It also sparked a serious debate over parenting and the propriety of hitting the high seas with two young children.

The Navy warship, the USS Vandegrift, docked at Naval Air Station North Island with the Kaufman family safely aboard and the child recovering from her illness, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Lenaya Rotklein said.

In a photo released by the Navy, the family looked like typical vacationers, with father Eric dressed in shorts and a baseball cap while lugging bags, and his wife, Charlotte, walking behind him, holding the toddler in a strap-on carrier and grasping the hand of her 3-year-old daughter.

The happy scene was a far cry from the miserable conditions described by Navy sailors who spoke to reporters after the ship moved to the San Diego mainland later in the day without the Kaufmans.

They said poor visibility, winds of 10 knots and rough seas kept them from sending a rescue boat to the Kaufmans for hours on Sunday. When they did reach the family’s sailboat, 5- to 8-foot waves forced them to offload one person at a time. The effort took two hours.

“Stand on top of a 6-foot ladder, have a friend throw a bucket of saltwater in your face, rinse and repeat for two hours,” said Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Ian Matthew Gabriel.

The sailors said the Rebel Heart had enough fuel for 10- to 11 hours of sailing, but that every time the Kaufmans tried to turn on the engine, the boat would take on water. They said the four California Air National Guard members who parachuted 1,500 feet into the heavy surf to stabilize Lyra got seasick. The parajumpers, who spent three nights on the sailboat, and the Kaufmans were soaking wet when a Navy rescue boat reached them Sunday.

Once the rescue boat started speeding toward the USS Vandegrift, Lyra’s sister, Cora, began to laugh in amazement.

“The 3-year-old was having a ball. She thought it was the most fun thing ever and the rest of us were white-knuckled,” Lt. Junior Grade Chris Cheezum said.

The Kaufmans’ decision to sail around the world with Lyra and Cora drew accusations of recklessness from some observers and praise from others for their courageous spirit.

“They’ll probably go on the ‘Today’ show to talk about this, and write a book about it, do a miniseries and get 15 minutes of fame because that’s how our country tends to reward people who choose recklessly to put themselves and their children in danger,” said Margaret Dilloway, a San Diego novelist who has three children.

Sariah English, Charlotte Kaufman’s sister, said she doesn’t question the decision of her sister’s family. Sailing is their passion, she said. It’s what defines them.

“Charlotte and Eric raise their children how they see fit,” English said. “They are very concerned about child safety. That’s their No. 1 concern, and they did not do this blindly. They are responsible, good parents.”

Eric Kaufman, a Coast Guard-licensed captain, and his wife sent a statement from the ship defending their actions, saying “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.”

Others said children benefit in many intangible ways from parents who show them the world, even when they’re too young to remember it.

Ivan Alba said the Kaufmans should be commended.

“I think it’s a great thing, their decision to sail around the world, and just because their children are 1 and 3 years old doesn’t mean they can’t be on a boat,” said Alba, of San Diego, who is also planning a world trip with his wife and two daughters, 8 and 10. “It’s just too bad what happened, but that’s also life. Anything can happen, anywhere.”

Addressing criticism on the cost of the rescue, Gabriel, the sailor who took the Kaufmans to the warship, asked: “How do you put a price on a child’s life? You shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s right.”

The parajumpers brought oxygen and powerful antibiotics onto the sailboat, and Lyra responded well to medication for salmonella-like symptoms.

She previously had salmonella in Mexico, where the family had stopped their voyage for her birth. Her pediatrician assured them she was recovered and could travel, English said.

Still, shortly into the trip, the child started showing symptoms and did not respond to antibiotics.

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