Opinion: Give the Kaufmans a break: sailing adventure was brazen, not stupid

Sailors from the Navy frigate Vandegrift assist in the rescue of the Kaufman family on Sunday.
(U.S. Coast Guard / Associated Press )

Maybe because I’m not a parent, I don’t have a problem with the San Diego couple who decided to set sail across the South Pacific in a 36-foot boat from Mexico with their 1-year-old and 3-year-old daughters in tow. Even though things went seriously wrong.

The 1-year-old, who had been treated for salmonella a couple of weeks before the start of the trip (and reportedly was cleared to go on the trip by a doctor), fell ill with a rash and fever. Meanwhile, the boat lost its steering and communication, and the family had to be rescued by a flotilla of personnel: the California Air National Guard, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard. Then they had to be transported back to San Diego on a Navy frigate, the Vandegrift.

Charlotte and Eric Kaufman, the couple who set sail, have been under virtual attack in social media for endangering their children on a risky adventure and then causing the U.S. government to spend who knows how much to pluck them out of the ocean 900 or so miles off the coast of Mexico. (The couple managed to get some possessions off the sailboat before it was scuttled.)


What I see is a couple who didn’t give up their own dreams when they had children but included them in the adventure. Yes, the kids are a little young, but this wasn’t about finding a kid-friendly vacation. This was a journey that their parents wanted — and they believed their children, at a portable young age, should come along for the ride. Maybe that’s a little brazen, but I find it refreshing. (Their boat was named “Rebel Heart.”)

I think sometimes parents give up a little too much for their children. And by the way, as soon as these kids hit kindergarten, they won’t be available for a months-long sailboat trip for another 12 to 16 years. And I would not support taking children out of school to do a trip like this.

Go ahead and list all the things that could go wrong with a 1-year-old on a sailboat in a remote part of the world. Tell me I don’t understand how fragile kids that age are. Although having spent hours with my nephew and niece since they were infants and toddlers, my most frightening moments with them — on my watch — were later in their young lives. Like the time my niece, then an 8-year-old daredevil, crashed her bicycle on a downhill sprint and got up from the ground covered in blood and screaming. (We got her to the doctor. She was fine.)

My point is that it was a family adventure, and despite the criticism hurled their way, the Kaufmans don’t strike me as crazy people. Erick Kaufman is a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain, according to media reports. He and his wife planned the trip for a year. They packed medication. The route they charted, from Mexico to islands of French Polynesia, was considered safely navigable.

More troubling for me is the expensive and elaborate rescue needed. OK, sailors get caught in storms and hikers get stranded and dogs fall into ravines and the next thing you know rescuers are being dangled by cables from helicopters to fetch them and the whole thing plays out on the evening news. The Times’ editorial board weighed in on the case of stranded and unprepared hikers last year in the Orange County back country who had to be rescued by authorities and professional crews at a cost of about $160,000. Some people thought the teenaged hikers should have to pay back the money. We said that fire, police and rescue services are paid for by all of us and should be there to rescue all of us, even if we behave stupidly.

It’s a little different when you go off into the ocean on a sailboat. That’s a venture in which, despite the best of plans, something major can go wrong. Maybe the Kaufmans should bear some of the cost of their rescue. And maybe all round-the-world sailors should have some kind of trip insurance. Or rescue insurance.


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