Stay up to Date
Our daily roundup of San Diego’s most important stories (Monday-Friday)
The online watchdogs of austerity would have this family of Americans, including a former service member, billed for their own rescue by services that are always on standby for these exact situations.
By now you have most likely heard about the Kaufman family, who were rescued after their 1-year-old daughter Lyra became ill aboard their sailboat, the Rebel Heart.
Their story, including a daring intervention by the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing, the transfer of the family to a Navy warship and the subsequent scuttling of their boat, led to some pretty sensational headlines.
The saga and the barrage of denunciations aimed at Lyra’s parents, Charlotte and Eric Kaufman, were particularly unnerving to their family and friends, including myself. Before moving to Mexico to begin their hoped-for circumnavigation of the globe, the Kaufmans were longtime residents of San Diego. I met Charlotte in 2003, when we became fast friends and eventually colleagues. I got to know Eric after they met.
For those of us who know them, the accusations that the Kaufmans are “idiots” is laughable. They’re both educated and successful. Eric, a licensed captain who served on a Navy submarine, is so valued by his company that they convinced him to telecommute during their voyage. Charlotte is a teacher, business owner and former real estate development analyst. They are literate and prolific writers, on their shared blog and elsewhere. Over the last year Charlotte wrote about her pregnancy and sailing experiences in San Diego Magazine.
Before they disembarked from Mexico for their transit to the South Pacific, Charlotte sent instructions for how to contact them, via an email address they could access by satellite. On March 25, I emailed to check on their progress and received a reply within 24 hours. The main page of their site provided a GPS map of their journey, and family members were in frequent contact.
The Kaufmans lived aboard what had proven to be a seaworthy vessel with backups and redundant systems. When Lyra became ill and their boat began having problems, they didn’t hesitate to make the tough decision and call for help. From the U-T:
“The family was very, very well prepared for this voyage. They had all the necessary radio and equipment and training … Theoretically, they could have brought their boat back to shore. … the boat wasn’t sinking. It was just a small amount of water coming on board,” said the pararescueman who gave his rank, master sergeant, but not his full name.
Why, then, did the family issue the distress call?
“Time,” he said. “They were three weeks out with favorable winds. Turning around and heading back toward shore with his sick daughter, would have taken too long. So (Eric Kaufman) decided, ‘Hey, my family is worth more than my boat, so let’s get out of here while I can.’”
I don’t speak for the Kaufmans. They have been inundated with requests and are taking much-needed downtime before addressing the media. But I want to address some of the criticisms that have been leveled at them.
Think whatever you will about their decision to sail when they did. Your beliefs about parenting and boating have free reign of judgement.
In one sense, the Kaufmans’ openness helped give life to the fusillade of naysayers. Charlotte’s most-quoted passage was taken from the first line of a post she wrote while under way, that the Pacific crossing “may be the stupidest thing we have ever done.” She and Eric knew the open-ocean voyage with two young children would be extremely difficult, were very open about that fact and their own writing was held up as evidence of their supposed poor judgement.
What stunned me even more than the blistering denunciations was the manner in which they were doled out. As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes: Everybody’s got one. But everyone doesn’t have a blog with comment sections they can’t turn off while they’re in the middle of the Pacific with an ailing child and a boat that’s just been sent to Davy Jones’ Locker.
None of us can begin to imagine how that felt. To not only have the abject despair of a parent with a sick child, to be humbled by the need to send out a Mayday distress call, to then remain onboard their sailboat with four pararescuemen over three days (“soaking wet the entire time,” according to the rescue squad), and to then watch their home of over seven years sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
While the Kaufmans were dealing with this emergency, commenters streamed onto the Rebel Heart blog. The comments on Charlotte and Eric’s most recent posts rose into the hundreds before the family reached land. A number of them were vicious and hateful.
At the same time, a huge outpouring of support also unfurled in the blog comments and across boating forums, many from the tight-knit community of “live-aboards” and “cruisers” who know the Kaufmans from their years-long preparation for their adventure.
One opinion floated up to the mainstream that the family ought to be billed for the rescue, owing to their own supposed recklessness. A banner headline in U-T San Diego claimed, “Cost for sailing family rescue: $663,000.”
Never mind that the rescue was exactly the kind of mission the responding service members are trained for. Of all the things our military spends hundreds of billions of dollars on annually, the online watchdogs of austerity would have this family of Americans, including a former service member, billed for their own rescue by services that are always on standby for such situations.
A commenter on the U-T story offered this succinct rebuttal:
Here’s how the Coast Guard responded to the “bill the rescued” complaint:
The Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard don’t charge for search-and-rescue missions.
“We don’t want people in trouble at sea to hesitate to call for help for fear they’ll be charged for assistance,” said Lt. Anna Dixon of the 11th Coast Guard District, which oversaw the operation but did not send vessels or aircraft to the sailboat stranded southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
She said that helping at sea is a time-honored tradition and a requirement of international maritime convention.
Somehow, this kind of repayment wasn’t called for when an adrift sailor was rescued just days before the Kaufmans. But that guy didn’t have a sick baby with him, so no media frenzy and no cries to cover the expenses.
Even more disheartening was Charlotte’s brother and sister-in-law going on camera while the family was still adrift on the Rebel Heart, smugly recounting their “Told ya so” story — a less-than-ideal way to support loved ones dealing with an emergency.
The Kaufmans have rolled with these kinds of judgments for some time. Last November, Charlotte posted a reflection of her experiences to date. It even foreshadows a bit of what the family has gone through this week:
You just can’t please everyone. While we had seen glimpses of this mantra throughout our time living aboard in San Diego, the last year has been a real doozy for not making people happy. For some reason when you decide to embark on a crazy adventure like this some people feel entitled to tell you how you should be doing things. …
The strangest thing is that all of these things were said by people who know me; well at least, I thought they knew me. These were not comments from strangers on our blog. The take-away? I’ve learned to not take things too personally when you get statements like these from loved ones. People project their lives onto you and assume you should do things as they would do them. Heck, I’m not immune to doing this either. Imagine all the crazy things you think we have done in the last year or so, and I promise you, we are reading about somebody else out there and scratching our heads, and thinking, wow, they are batshit crazy.
The difference is, we don’t message them and tell them how we feel. No, if anything the last year has taught me about how fragile people can be. About how hard it is to communicate via the internet. To think twice before I write something and always double-read to make sure I’m not about to say something mean, judgmental, or cruel. The past 12 months have taught me to try to be more understanding, more kind, and more supportive of the people I know in my life; I’m trying to treat people the way I’d like to be treated too.
It’s no revelation that people love to inflict their opinion on others, that the media can be a pack of vultures, and that the internet is quite often a cruel, heartless place. But for the Rebel Heart crew, fellow San Diegans, people I know and love in real life, this lack of empathy and basic human kindness has been laid bare. The media and online commenters have said much more about themselves than about the children and family for which they purported to have so much concern.
Fortunately, the selfless actions of our coastal first responders, and the overwhelming support of the Kaufmans from the boating community and others, have been just as heartening.
If you would like to assist the family, a fundraising page has been set up to help them recover.