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Do the rescued sailors with a sick baby deserve our condemnation?

This post has been updated, as noted below

Welcome home, Kaufman family!

Today, as my colleague Tony Perry reports, the Navy warship that rescued Eric and Charlotte Kaufman and their two tiny daughters, made port in San Diego.

In order to dodge a media scrum, Perry relates, the Kaufmans were dropped off at the Naval Air Station North Island, before the ship docked at its home port, the 32nd Street Naval Station, across San Diego Bay.

They will not just be arriving home in San Diego; they will also be sailing (metaphorically, this time) into a squall of criticism about their decision to take a vulnerable 1-year-old and her 3½-year-old sister on an ill-fated journey at sea. Can't blame them for wanting to avoid reporters.

The Kaufmans were two weeks and 900 miles into a voyage from Mexico to the South Pacific aboard the 36-foot sailboat Rebel Heart when their baby, Lyra, became ill with a fever, diarrhea and rash. The boat also lost steering and communication.

On Thursday, four California Air National Guardsmen parachuted into the water and were able to stabilize the baby, and stay with the family until the guided-missile frigate Vandegrift, on a routine training mission, was diverted to pick them up. The Rebel Heart was sunk; the baby is fine.

The Kaufmans, bless their current need for privacy, have kept a sometimes cringeworthy blog about the trip, revealing intimacies — about menstrual cycles and conjugal relations — that seem more suited to a locked diary than a public account.

Charlotte Kaufman’s blog, in particular, is a warts-and-all account of the challenges of family life at sea. Even before the baby took ill and the boat failed, she pummels herself for taking the children along. Given how things unspooled, she will probably one day look back on many of her posts with horror:

Day 1, March 20: "Sailing with a 13 month old and 3.5 year old, however, is a lot of work .… Imagine doing your normal stay-at-home day, only your entire house is pitching about .… We will spend each and every moment of the day with one or both of our children, as veritable body guards, ensuring they don’t go tumbling and break an arm or crack a tooth.

"I remember arguing with Eric in the kitchen of our apartment in Golden Hill, San Diego, about whether or not to have kids …. Eric was worried that having kids would mean the end to our dreams, and a move to a blasé life in the suburbs. I insisted that having kids would not impede on our dreams, and technically, they haven’t."

Day 3, March 22: "I was not happy. I felt sick. I felt like an automaton, existing only for the survival of my children, and yes, OF COURSE, I’m here for the survival of my children, but my god, I just needed-to-change-my-pad, wash-my-hands, eat-some-chocolate, and BREATHE for one … second without having to worry about the kids."

Day 6, March 25: "Lyra is absolutely the most challenging part of the trip. And Lyra, if you are reading this someday, know that we don’t mean you were a “bad baby,” or anything of the sort. You’re a wonderfully active, happy, ingenuitive (is that an actual word?) child. You are vocal, and curious, and BUSY, just as you should be. WE are the nutballs who decided to set to sea with you. Trust me, we have no one else to blame for bringing a 13 month old to sea than ourselves. I keep telling myself that Bora Bora will be worth it, worth what I’m now calling ‘extreme parenting.’"

Day 8, March 26: "I think this may be the stupidest thing we have ever done. ‘Stupid’ is the number one word that resonates throughout my day as we tick the slow minutes away to the kids’ bed times each night. ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What the ... was I thinking?’ ‘Why did we pick such a hard way of traveling?’ Stupid."

Day 11, March 29: "The first few days the wind was accompanied by an incredibly awful sea state. It had each of us in a foul mood. There were tears (on my part). There were bruises (not from each other, geez), but from getting knocked all over the cabin …. Lyra and I are having the hardest time sleeping, she because she is so tiny that a single roll of the cabin in one direction could roll her 1.5 times in one direction, and then back the same amount the other way."

From Eric’s blog on Day 13, March 31: “Charlotte made a coffee cake last night, we managed to have sex once while both children were asleep, and none of us have sustained any long term injuries other than the bruising typically associated with offshore passage making.”

Charlotte Kaufman's last entry was posted on Day 14, April 1: “If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.”

It's not clear what she was referring to, but the price of putting themselves onstage is the spirited public debate that their family drama has sparked.

Was it wise to undertake a sailing voyage that would put an infant out of reach of doctors? Probably not. Babies are medically vulnerable in a way older children and adults are not.

But should the Kaufmans be expected to pay for their rescue at sea?

Of course not.

It doesn’t matter if you find yourself in mortal danger by accident, by act of God, or by your own foolish hand. We — by which I mean our governments — save people who might otherwise perish. It’s a fantastic use of tax dollars, and the rescue operation should make us all proud.

As for the Kaufmans, who are in for some serious soul-searching, let them beat themselves up if they are so inclined.

They don’t need us to do it for them.

[For the Record, 2:27p.m. PT April 10: An earlier version of this post said that Charlotte Kaufman's final comment on her blog was a response to negative comments about the family's decision to take two small children to sea, and the price tag for the rescue. However, her blog entry was made before the rescue was undertaken.]


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