Stranded family rescued at sea arrives in San Diego aboard Navy warship

SAN DIEGO - A U.S. Navy warship carrying a family whose sailboat broke down in the Pacific Ocean with a sick toddler arrived on Wednesday in San Diego.

The arrival came six days after Charlotte and Eric Kaufman called for help on their satellite phone from about 1,000 miles off the coast of Mexico when their sailboat broke down and their 1-year-old daughter Lyra was vomiting and suffering from diarrhea and fever.

California Air National Guard members parachuted down to the ocean and swam to the 36-foot sailboat on Thursday -- the same day the distress call was made.

The rescue crew did not just nurse the young girl back to health; they stayed at her side for days in cramped quarters. The Navy rescue ship arrived on Sunday.

The girl quickly responded to new medication for her salmonella-like symptoms. Her 3-year-old sister was also on the boat.

The warship carrying the family docked at Naval Air Station North Island, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Lenaya Rotklein said.

Crew members from the USS Vandegrift told 10News they were proud of their role in rescuing the Kaufmans from their sinking sailboat.

When the Navy frigate first approached the 36-foot boat stranded about 1,000 miles west of Cabo San Lucas, Commanding Officer Luis Alva said the winds were strong and the boat was "listing pretty heavily from side to side."

The frigate launched a rescue boat which braved the rough seas, circling the Rebel Heart.

"We couldn't tie up to them because the seas were too rough, so we just had to come in and right as we bumped them one of them would jump on to the small boat, and we'd pull away and come back in for another round," said Lt. Chris Cheezum, who handled that part of the rescue.

Cheezum said the Kaufmans were very "level-headed," following the crew's orders to jump from their disabled boat to the rescue boat. The two children were strapped to the bodies of the California National Guard pararescuers who had been treating Lyra at sea for four days.

Cheezum said the family was relieved and thankful to be off their boat, which sailors sunk to make sure it was not a hazard for other vessels in the area.

During the bumpy ride back to the Vandegrift, Cheezum said the children seemed to enjoy themselves. 

"The baby looked great, and actually the 3-year-old I think was having more fun than we were on the ride back, because we were all white-knuckled and she was having a blast," he said.

Aboard the Navy frigate, preparations were being made for their guests. Two members of the command staff gave up their quarters for the family. The cook made special meal preparations for the girls, and offered snacks like ice cream.

Lyra’s condition steadily improved throughout the trip back to San Diego. 

The Kaufmans did not wish to speak publicly. They want to tend to their daughter first and get some rest, Charlotte Kaufman's sister, Sariah English, said.

The family avoided the media after arriving back on solid ground, but were seen visiting a medical lab in downtown San Diego, were witnesses said Lyra had some blood drawn.

Wednesday evening, someone from Rebel Heart posted the following statement on a website for boaters:

"Hey guys, we're all fine and back in San Diego.

The media has been all over us and honestly the facts are so distorted at this point I don't even know where to start. In the few hours we've been back in town the media has been all over us, right up to the front door of our doctor's office when we were getting Lyra checked out.

The rescuers (the 129th California Air National Guard and the USS Vandegrift) were amazing; I've never met a better group of professionals.

I totally want to give you guys all the details but I need the media storm to die down. I've been so amazed at the support that the sailing community has offered us. There was a sailboat that came by the USS Vandegrift on our way intoSan Diego Harbor that had Rebel Heart banners streaming off of it.

I know some people with disagree with whatever actions I took, but for those of you who support me I want you to know that you've warmed my heart. This entire thing has humbled me and I feel an immense sense of gratitude towards everyone involved.

I promise I'll come back with all the details, but we need to get away from the cameras and lose our fifteen minutes of fame first."

The Kaufmans' decision to sail around the world with Lyra and her sister Cora has struck a chord with parents -- angering some who accuse them of endangering their children and drawing admiration from others for having the courage and determination to follow their dream.

"The rescuers have to risk their own lives to help people who do these kinds of stupid things on purpose, and I don't think that's right," said Margaret Dilloway, a San Diego novelist who has three children, adding that she thinks the family should have to foot part of the bill for the rescue operation.

"They'll probably go on the 'Today' show to talk about this, and write a book about it, do a Mini-series and get 15 minutes of fame because that's how our country tends to reward people who choose recklessly to put themselves and their children in danger," Dilloway said.

English doesn't question their decision: Sailing is their passion. It's what defines them. The family had lived aboard the sailboat, Rebel Heart, for seven years before it broke down. Rescuers had to sink it because it was taking in water.

"People are going to criticize anybody's parenting of their children," she said. "Charlotte and Eric raise their children how they see fit. They are very concerned about child safety. That's their No. 1 concern and they did not do this blindly. They are responsible, good parents."

But they are aware of the criticism. Eric Kaufman, a Coast Guard-licensed captain, and his wife sent a statement from the USS Vandegrift defending their actions, saying "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."

Others say children benefit in numerous, intangible ways from parents who show them the world, even at an age in which they may not remember the travels.

Ivan Alba said they should be commended for having the courage to follow their dream.

"I think it's a great thing, their decision to sail around the world, and just because their children are 1 and 3 years old doesn't mean they can't be on a boat," said the San Diego father, who is also planning a world trip with his wife and two daughters, 8 and 10. "I say more power to them. It's just too bad what happened, but that's also life. Anything can happen, anywhere."

Charlotte Kaufman was pregnant with Lyra when they set off from San Diego. They stopped in Mexico for the birth. The baby had salmonella in Mexico but her pediatrician had assured them she was over it and safe to travel when they set off again on their voyage last month, English said.

But shortly into the trip, she started showing symptoms and did not respond to antibiotics. Then the Rebel Heart lost its steering and communication abilities. The Kaufmans used a satellite phone to call for help Thursday.

It took three federal agencies, a fixed-wing aircraft, a Navy warship and scores of personnel to rescue the family. The Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard don't charge for search-and-rescue missions so as not to not discourage people from calling for help. Rescuing people also is a requirement of international maritime convention.

The cost of the operation to rescue the Kaufmans has not been tallied yet.

English, who spoke to her sister after the rescue, said her niece has become a healthy, happy baby again with new medication. The girl is expected to see a doctor in San Diego to get a diagnosis of the illness.

"For now, they just want to focus on Lyra and get their feet back on the ground," English said. "But honestly I'd be surprised if there was not another sailing adventure in their future. I'm just not sure how soon."

English is grateful for everyone who helped bring the family home. She said the rescue team lived up to their name "The Guardian Angels."

"They're wonderful," English said. "They're amazing."

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