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Let’s not throw stones at family rescued at sea

What do you think about Eric and Charlotte Kaufmans’ decision to sail across the Pacific Ocean in a small boat with their two small children? You have an opinion, don’t you? Meaning: They were nuts, right? Well, actually, I’m conflicted, and hesitant to pass judgment. I keep getting asked this question because recently I did the same thing.

Ten years ago this April, my wife, Kyle, and I crossed the eastern Pacific Ocean from Panama to the Galapagos in a 32-foot sailboat (the Kaufmans’ boat was 35 feet) with our young daughters, then 9 and 6 (the Kaufmans’ children are 3 and 1).

We had set sail from Groton, Conn., a few months before and planned to sail around the world. It took us almost seven years to complete our circumnavigation. We made it home safely, and all four of us believe passionately that our voyage enriched our lives and our family immeasurably.

I didn’t have a Coast Guard license (Eric Kaufman does) and Kyle had very little ocean sailing experience, but I had some. Close family members and friends, Kyle’s parents in particular, worried that this trip might not be a smart idea and that we might be taking irresponsible risks with our two daughters. Were they right? How could we ever know?

News reports have included little detail about how the Kaufmans prepared for their Pacific voyage. It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have taken this daunting responsibility as seriously as we did, and as did the dozen or so families we met who were sailing across the Pacific with their young children aboard.

We had planned and prepared relentlessly for two years. We took a 10-day Wilderness First Responder course. We dismantled, checked and rebuilt or replaced many of the mechanical systems we’d be relying on in our 25-year-old sailboat.

As parents going to sea with our young daughters, we knew that no matter what, as my father-in-law implored moments before casting us off in Connecticut, we had to “just bring them back alive.” We intended to make conservative decisions, avoid extra risks, have redundant systems and be patient. The other ocean-crossing families we met – with a few memorable exceptions – showed similar caution.

As one dramatic exception, a family with four children on board – a “kid boat” we’d spent months with in New Zealand – nearly wrecked in the notorious Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea. Short on money and time, they had taken a calculated risk. They tried to traverse the strait with an unreliable engine and lost radio and navigation electronics, a problem compounded dangerously when a severe storm and bad luck broke their boom. Foul wind and current prevented their going back. They ran aground at night during a falling tide on a labyrinthine coral reef with no way to call for help. Circumstances that easily could have killed four children and their parents (adding to their risk of drowning, large saltwater crocodiles populated these shallow, warm, offshore waters) became a remarkable story of self-reliance and improvised problem-solving.

Kyle and I would never have risked our children the way these friends did. But I refuse to throw stones at them.

What seems clear about the Kaufmans’ preparation is that they had a contingency plan for a life-threatening illness of a child, and the plan worked. They had a radio, satellite phone, EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) or some other way to call for help. And they used it.

What’s also clear is that they were unlucky. They had two serious problems at the same time: their daughter became very ill and the boat lost its steering. They probably had a plan for jury-rigging steering gear, or they had reference books aboard that offered a few proven options. But the combination of worst-case mechanical and medical crises overwhelmed them and they had to request a rescue and surrender their ship and dream. More arrogant, stubborn or materialistic parents might have delayed asking for help until it was too late to save 1-year-old Lyra’s life.

I don’t have an opinion about whether the Kaufmans were adequately prepared or had taken an unreasonable risk. But I can imagine easily the emotions they are experiencing, including their relief.

Doug Hopkins, an attorney, formerly led the Environmental Defense Fund Oceans Program and now teaches history at Buffalo Seminary, an all-girls independent high school. He sailed around the world for seven years with his wife and young daughters, finally sailing into Buffalo in the summer of 2010.