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Sick baby, family arrive in San Diego after rescue from sailboat

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SAN DIEGO — The guided-missile frigate Vandegrift returned here Wednesday with 15 officers, 190 enlisted sailors and a sick baby named Lyra.

The rescue of the 1-year-old and her family from their crippled sailboat hundreds of miles out at sea was accomplished by a joint effort of the Coast Guard, California Air National Guard and the Navy, which redirected the Vandegrift from a training mission off Southern California.

Avoiding the news media, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman and their two daughters — Lyra and 3-year-old Cora — disembarked at Naval Air Station North Island. The ship docked there to take on ordnance for an upcoming anti-drug smuggling deployment off South America.

Lyra's condition has stabilized, officials said. If needed, the Vandegrift could have airlifted the child to a hospital in San Diego once the family was brought aboard Sunday morning.

On the Vandegrift, Lyra was under the care of four rescue specialists from the California Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing, who had parachuted into the water to reach the sailboat the night of April 3.

The child had been suffering from a high temperature, diarrhea and a severe rash when her parents made a distress call that day to the Coast Guard as their 36-foot sailboat, Rebel Heart, drifted powerlessly about 1,000 miles off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Cmdr. Luis Alva, the Vandegrift's skipper, said crew members fashioned baby food, a crib and clothing for the child.

Speaking to reporters at the Vandegrift's home port at the 32nd Street Naval Station, Alva declined to say whether he thought the Kaufmans had made a bad decision taking their children on the round-the-world sailing voyage — a hot issue in many online forums.

Under persistent questioning, the ship's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Daryl Robbin, said he would not have brought his own children.

"For one thing, I don't own a sailboat," said Robbin, a 26-year Navy veteran. "For another, I know how big the ocean is."

Once aboard the Navy ship, the Kaufmans issued a statement defending their decision: "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 Kaufmans lived in San Diego until moving a year ago to Mexico, where Lyra was born.

Eric Kaufman, a Navy veteran, works in the financial services industry and had become dissatisfied, according to his blog, with the "house-car-job-complex with its nine-to-five office routine."

He wrote about taking Cora on sailboat trips between San Diego and Santa Catalina Island, where Cora "rode out a gale in that run, twice, when she was 3 months old."

In her blog, Charlotte Kaufman, a writer and former high school teacher, mentioned taking both children to a doctor before the family set sail. Lyra had tested positive for salmonella, she wrote.

Lyra "is currently taking three types of antibiotics and a steroid, to battle bronchitis and a bacterial upper respiratory infection," she wrote days before beginning the trip.

By late on April 3, after a six-hour flight in an MC-130 Combat Shadow aircraft , four rescuers from the Air National Guard had parachuted into the water near the sailboat and climbed aboard to provide emergency care for Lyra. Her condition quickly improved, officials said.

Many of the 17 personnel on the aircraft were veterans of hazardous deployments. The pilot, Maj. Mike Wagle, has been deployed to Iraq, the Horn of Africa and into numerous hurricanes but had never been assigned to rescue a baby on the high seas.

The mission, carried out amid dense clouds and choppy waves, was good training for the newer personnel and a morale boost for all of them, Wagle said in a telephone interview.

"When you hear that it's a 1-year-old baby that needs help, it definitely gives you greater energy, greater incentive," Wagle said. "You couldn't ask for better real-world training and a better result."

The assignment had some unique aspects. As they packed their medical bag, the National Guard personnel made sure to have plenty of Pedialyte, a product for children to replenish minerals lost through diarrhea and vomiting.

Some online commenters said the Kaufmans should be charged for the cost of the rescue. But military officials said rescues at sea are part of a long tradition among mariners and also are required by international maritime agreements.

The Rebel Heart was scuttled after the rescue so that it would not become a hazard to navigation.

One critic of the parents' decision to take two young children on such a trip was Charlotte Kaufman's brother, James Moriset.

"I saw this coming," Moriset told KNSD-TV Channel 7 in San Diego. "I saw the potential for every bit of it. I'm just glad they're alive and my little niece is being taken care of, which is cool."

Friends of the Kaufmans have established a website in hopes of raising $20,000 to pay their medical bills and housing needs. By Wednesday night, it had raised more than $14,000.

tony.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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