REBEL HEART EVACUATION: Another Internet Sailboat Rescue Tornado

7 Apr

Eric Kaufman with children

Goodness gracious. Do I feel sorry for Eric and Charlotte Kaufman! Not only have they lost their home, Rebel Heart, the Hans Christian 36 they’ve been cruising on for two years, which they had to abandon yesterday when they boarded a U.S. Navy warship about 900 miles west of Mexico, and which the Navy subsequently scuttled and sank. Not only have they had to cope with the unthinkable stress of having their 1-year-old daughter, Lyra, come down with some mysterious illness in the middle of a long Pacific passage. But now they have a good chunk of the global population lambasting them online for getting into all this trouble in the first place.

Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

No doubt you’ve heard about this on some level already. I started following the story Friday online and heard it on National Public Radio yesterday, which doesn’t happen very often with bluewater cruising news.

But let’s review what we know:

1) Eric and Charlotte left Mexico on Rebel Heart about three weeks ago with their two young daughters, Cora (3) and Lyra (1), onboard. Eric is an experienced sailor and lured Charlotte into the cruising game. They bought Rebel Heart and started planning a circumnavigation 9 years ago; left San Diego and started actively cruising Mexico 2 years ago. Lyra was born after the cruise started (you can read an exciting account of her birth here). This big passage west to French Polynesia was the family’s first major ocean crossing.

Rebel Heart

Rebel Heart in slings

Charlotte Kaufman

Charlotte with Lyra on the inside

Kaufman family

The whole family, with Lyra on the outside

2) Judging from the accounts of the passage posted separately on Charlotte’s blog and on Eric’s blog, they were having a challenging trip. Variable winds, too light for a while (they weren’t carrying enough fuel to motor), and also strong enough to move the boat fast, but with lots of motion. Seasickness and some minor repairs needed.

In other words, basically normal ocean-sailing conditions, but with having to mind the kids on top of it. On Charlotte’s blog, in particular, you can get a good sense of how hard this was. She does a lot of arguing back and forth with herself about whether it’s worth it or not and seems to come out on the “yes, it’s worth it” side, but only barely.

3) About a week ago something major went wrong with the boat, though we really have no idea what. Various reports mention the boat taking on water, steering problems, and a loss of communications (presumably also power), but nothing confirmed by the Kaufmans themselves. The last blog post, from Charlotte, was on April 1 and was very terse: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

At about this same time, though we don’t know which happened first, Lyra came down with a big rash and fever that did not respond to medication. She reportedly had suffered from salmonella prior to the family’s leaving Mexico, but had been cleared by a doctor to depart.

4) The Kaufmans somehow contacted the U.S. Coast Guard via satellite on Thursday (several reports refer to a satellite “ping,” but I suspect it had to be more than that) and asked for help, and that same night four California Air National Guard rescue swimmers parachuted on to the scene, boarded the boat, and stabilized the child.

5) All eight persons onboard abandoned the boat yesterday and boarded a Navy frigate, USS Vandegrift, and Rebel Heart was scuttled.

Rebel Heart from air

Rebel Heart from the air

USS Vandegrift

USS Vandegrift underway

Vandegrift boat crew

Evacuating Rebel Heart

On the basis of this relatively slim narrative, many non-sailing laypeople, including Charlotte’s brother, have seen fit to criticize them for recklessly endangering their children. You can peruse the comments on their Facebook page for an idea of how this has been going, or check the comments section to any relevant news story.

The sailing community, I am pleased to say, has countered all this criticism with nearly unanimous support.

Ironically, I must note, when I had my little rescue adventure in January with Hank Schmitt and the owners of Be Good Too, this worked exactly the opposite way: laypeople supported us and the sailing community mostly criticized us.

Moral of that story: if you have to abandon a boat and want other sailors to sympathize with you, take some children along.

I actually had been following the Kaufmans via their website for a while, as Pat Schulte, former SAILfeed blogger of Bumfuzzle fame, had tipped me off to them. He and his family encountered them while they were knocking around Mexico on their boat. (Now they are boatless, cruising on the hard in their antique motorhome.)

So I kind of feel I know these guys, and my heart goes out to them. Having to cope with a major illness or injury has always been one of my biggest fears when sailing offshore. Having it be a sick child only makes it a hundred times scarier. As for the boat, I won’t be too surprised if it turns out it was uninsured, which would be a huge bummer. But I’m very glad Lyra and the rest of the family are OK.

Plus, of course, I’m dying to know what actually went wrong with the boat. Also: why so many rescue swimmers? Hopefully we’ll get answers later this week when the Vandegrift makes port in San Diego.

Other sources: CBC News, NBC 7 San Diego, Old Salt Blog, Washington Post


  1. domain

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting
    my own blog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up?
    I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a
    pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% sure.

    Any recommendations or advice would be greatly
    appreciated. Thank you

  2. Cedòn Narquez

    The different response to the rescue of Rebel Heart versus Be Good Too has nothing whatever to do with the presence of children; that is a ridiculous oversimplification.

    Be Good Too set out into conditions that could be expected to be the worst imaginable with inadequate preparation and very limited tools for self-rescue. Any sensible sailor would not have done so; the information we have is very clear and unequivocal.

    The information we have about Rebel Heart is far less clear. Rebel Heart departed into benign conditions with what appears to be adequate preparation. As you point out, however, we do not understand exactly what happened. It is difficult for the sailing community to criticize Rebel Heart in the absence of clear and complete information.

  3. Richard

    My lifes passion is sailing am very familiar wirh this boat and these sailing grounds. Sailing with children is a personal matter…my son grew up sailing with me. And done boat deliveries with families that in my opinion were ill suited for the experience. Again, not a criticism, but know there are gaps in the accoumt of whar happened to this boat. Lost steering…..this boat is fitted with an auxillary tiller, and can generally be steered wirh rhe wind vain…Fuel….pretty sure this voat has a 60 gallon tank…not 30….my Han 33 carries 90 gallons of fuel. I also read somewhere that they were taking on water. Wouldnt you know where a leak is coming from? It sounded like an exhaust elbow problem.

  4. Jeff

    It is an irresistible force that draws some folks to a very satisfying “higher ground” that allows them to pass judgement on others, citing how much better they would have done it, how much stronger of an individual they are, etc. May people always be adventurous (families too) and societies not respond to stories like Rebel Heart with venom and accusation, as if we should all stay home. Hats off to rescuers and the people who keep them funded. People who enjoy blaming and berating people who need help usually need to just piss off.

  5. Amy Schaefer

    Oof. You come back online after a few days of quiet, and see what you miss?

    I’d like to emphasize that there isn’t enough back-up gear in the world to make a passage 100% safe and guaranteed. Even brand-new boats encounter fatal issues. Until the crew of Rebel Heart is back on land and able to give a full account, we won’t know what happened. Judgement is premature.

    I am a cruiser and mother of two who made the same Pacific crossing. Nothing scares me more than having something happen to my kids, especially en route. I’m glad that Eric and Charlotte had the equipment on board to call for help when they needed it, and I’m even more grateful that the USS Vandegrift was able to respond successfully. For my part, I’m heart-broken that they lost their boat, and hope their baby recovers quickly. That is all that matters here.

  6. ceolwynn

    I’m a sailor… and have owned 3 different boats in my life… I’ve read some of the blogs and what sticks out in my mind is…

    how did his light-wind sail disintegrate ?? was it old ???
    or, was he using it in high winds ? both possibilities are bad.

    his boat was taking on water ??? either the hatches were bad / inadequate, or his bilge pump was also foot operated lol… with all that wind, his wind generator should have made plenty of juice for bilge pumps,,, but he prob didn’t have a wind generator either….

    who would head out across an ocean with old falling apart sails ??? the lugs came off his mainsail twice ? new, quality sails usually don’t behave that way, unless you abuse them ? no back up sails ? I have, along with my main and jib, a genoa, and spinaker, and I kept my original small batten-less mainsail.

    at least he bought a name brand wind steer…

    no elec water pump ??? with kids ??? and a wife…
    that’s a smart move for contentment. I did move my barely useful shower pipes and gadgets from the microscopic bathroom, to the cockpit, since I got the full canvas dodger sides. it’s like a full camping tent up there at anchor / dock… nice and sturdy too since all my canvas and dodger frames are attached to my 2″ welded-tubing radar arch.

    and, this guy’s wife can’t count as a sailing partner since she’s a full time baby wrangler, meaning the hubby is basically single handing across an ocean… fatigued, sleep deprived, etc. complaining about three am repairs on his old worn out sails… dude, that three am repairs stuff is standard with boating. lol…

    to outfit my current boat with a 20 gal fresh tank, 24v pump, name brand watermaker and associated wiring, hoses, etc, was only $4,800 … but, I do all my own work so i can trust it, know how to fix it, and where everything is,,,
    I’m going to add a small 3 gallon propane water heater this fall and I’m welding together a water shrouded exhaust pipe that I think Will let my generators help with water heating… by the way. I’m an experienced metal worker. tig welding comes in handy when you own a boat…

    before I went on my first long trips, I bought all new “sturdy” sails, ( not the low price specials ) , all new ropes, and swapped out nearly all the pulleys.
    … I changed out all the cables for new slightly stronger ones, larger chain plates too, which I made myself.

    I carry three radios, an epirb and a sat phone, two sizes of sea anchors, three AGM battery banks all in watertight battery boxes… I have an installed weather reports system that goes right to my main screen at the wheel. only $79 a month too .

    I have a small 28′ boat now, but since owning it, I’ve outfitted it with three-35 gallon gas tanks, so at 4 / 5 knots I have a motoring range around 250 miles.
    and enough fuel to motor with the auto pilot for repairs…
    as a single man I have the luxury of using the area under the cockpit as equipment space, instead of a difficult to access berth.

    I got a brand new outboard ( larger than I need and very fuel efficient ), I made my own double rudder steering, and have a backup rudder for my wind steer,

    there are dual small 3,000 watt generators that only weigh 76 lbs each ! and have automatic start for battery monitoring and charging. I set up my battery wiring so I could isolate any of the 3 sets and still run everything.
    each set has its own charger … to cut line losses from the generators to the batteries.

    my mainsail is on a roller furling boom for reefing to any size from the cockpit, the guy in the story had the usual reef points main sail that is not as customizable to the wind speed as a furling mainsail is.

    the light wind sail is in a sock that can be usually operated also from the cockpit and is always there on the bow sprit…

    and I installed a small handy wind speed alarm that I can set to whatever I like, and I have a lightning detector I made from plans in my fav electronics magazine, so storms aren’t as likely to sneak up on me… set onto “high” it will detect lightening from about 60 / 80 miles away.

    if you read this far about my boat,
    NOT my only residence, and rarely over 150 miles offshore… and understand how easy it is to have backups, and adequate gear… maybe you’ll see the rescued guy more like I do.
    inadequately prepared gear-wise, and should have known better.

    this boat is not my home though, I would prob get a larger one if it was, and have even more conveniences and backups if it was my residence…

    I like to sail between Houston and the keys,,, I rarely get more than my motoring distance from land, and this guy had worse gear failures than I ever had… I tossed the manufacturers hatch covers off of my boat right after I bought it, and made my own stainless steel rimmed, 8-dog, thicker hatch covers… they are stronger than my boat. along with the three bilge pumps, and almost watertight cabin door, I’m way less likely too have a “taking on water” problem than our hero did.

    did I mention I was a boy scout ?

  7. Shannon

    My husband and I are also doing the same passage with a 1 and 3 year old, leaving this week from the Galapagos. Is my first passage, not my husbands. In my opinion, and I see there are many out there, it is not reckless. You don’t carry fuel, you sail. You look for wind. It may be unpleasant. Be prepared for that, but attitudes may respond to local conditions even if you expected it. Either way, yes, we have diapers, etc. It’s not my dream to circumnavigate, but it is my dream to be home with my kids, show them the world, expose them to different cultures and geography and geology. Imagine how much our 6 children are thriving in these diverse environments and how much they are learning with our guidance day in and day out!! It’s awesome! Nothing like sitting in a classroom. Nothing like having to go to Disneyland and blowing what would be a month’s budget for us to get a little “thrill”. This is the best environment in the world for a child to grow up in. Illness strikes anywhere, Lyra is improving before medical intervention was even reached. I’m glad they are doing well, I am very sorry for them about their home. Many people are out here, learn a little about it before criticizing or you just look uneducated. We have roughly 25 kids out here in the Galapagos on boats doing the South Pacific passage this year that I know personally.

  8. Nora

    I’ve been following this story from the POV of a non sailing adventure traveller (seasick) and I’ve been going back and forth on the question of whether or not what these parents did was reckless. One of the problems is the mad hyperbole on both sides of the issue. Sailing families angrily say landlubbers should shut up because they have been cruising with their kids for years — yet many of them have never made an ocean crossing and/or only began cruising when their kids were older than the Kaufmann’s. Name calling is rampant and everyone is feeling ugly. The Kaufmanns seem, and there is years of evidence on the Rebel Heart blog, to be intelligent, loving and committed parents. They are relatable and very likeable. The real issue as I, and some others, see it is much more nuanced. Nevertheless, was it wise for the two parents, one with little skill, to take two near toddlers, who had recently been on multiple antibiotics (3 each) on a small boat across the pacific. There were other options. Sometimes boats with children cross together in a flotilla. Without that support, they could have waited until at least one of the children was more independent. It would have been terribly crowded but they could have taken on a crew member for the crossing. Had anything happened to Eric, Charlotte would have been unable to manage at all. My take is that these good people took a big risk, likely too big, and that this outcome was not altogether unforeseeable. They have paid mightily for it AND they have been very, very lucky.

  9. Heather

    No one on a sailboat carries enough fuel to motor 3300 miles Clydene. Cruisers SAIL across the Pacific Ocean and use their fuel for leaving an anchorage, anchoring and crossing the doldrums.
    Taking a year to get from San Diego to The Sea of Cortez is called CRUISING. It’s what we do. We stop along the way. We cross to the mainland of Mexico and cruise South then head back up to The Sea of Cortez later.
    The most interesting, well-rounded and well adjusted kids I have ever met have been cruising kids.

  10. Sally Lowe

    I have gone back and forth on this for so long, and while I am a fan of adventure traveling many times on my own to all parts of the world, I just feel the girls were too young and this was their dream, not the collective family dream. Looking at pictures of that tiny boat they would be spending weeks at a time in, reading her blog about how unhappy she was, suicidal thoughts, the whole bit about her father molesting her, the whole family becoming I’ll weeks before leaving…it’s was a recipe for disaster from the start. I think Lyra falling ill, and thank God she is ok, was a blessing in disguise to get them all off that boat, off the water, and re think a few things beacaue who knows what could have happened down the line given the horrible conditions of the boat and the mothers mental state. Sailing around the world is a full time job, taking care of kids is a full time job, can one hold two full time jobs? And shouldn’t you be of sound mind to do something like this?

  11. Jennifer

    Thank you for such a good summary of events with no assumptions as to what happened. I am crushed by the judgements the people are receiving. I grew up in a tiny (population less than 100) and hours away from any type of hospital. We had a winter with no electricity for a time because we couldn’t afford it. Should I have been taken away from my mother? Was she irresponsible? HELL NO. Haters will be haters and those that judge will continue. Good for the Kaufmans for sharing a life with their children beyond the 4 walls expected from western society. I hope they get back out there.

    The only thing else I will add is sharing this video developed by a friend of the family with help of cruising families around the world.

  12. Alicia

    First of all, let me say that I’m glad that everyone was okay. So I was the child of one of those “irresponsible” parents who decided to move on a sailboat with their 2 week old child and leave the United States with a 6 month old child to go cruising around the world. My parents gave me the most amazing upbringing that anyone could have asked for and they did it in a very responsible manner. My dad always had a backup plan to a backup plan. They took no chances with our safety. So to hear people say parents who go cruising with their children are irresponsible drives me absolutely nuts. All children I grew up with cruising are now incredibly successful, smart, engaging and wonderful people. There is nothing negative about growing up sailing and I feel like stories such as these get completely blown out of proportion and then cruising parents branded as being “irresponsible.” I am sorry, but I feel like my parents did the best thing they could have for our family by going cruising. I believe in that so much that I want to do the same thing with my family.

  13. Clydene

    From your own article obviously they weren’t prepared. “(they weren’t carrying enough fuel to motor).” Why defend them? It was a stupid thing to do, one good crew Eric, and a mother of two young children. It took them a year to get from San Diego to the Sea of Cortez? Really?

    If you want adventure don’t get married and have kids.

  14. RJ

    First blue water passage with a 1 and 3 year old? Reckless. Cruising the coast is nothing like spending weeks at sea. No emergency rudder? Not enough fuel? Kids in diapers? Poor judgement. As a parent I think the kids should come first, not the parents dream of circumnavigating. Just my opinion. Maybe when the kids are a bit older they can try again … Many thanks to our brave coast guard and navy personnel. Glad everyone is OK

  15. RJ

    First blue water passage with a 1 and 3 year old? Reckless. Cruising the coast is nothing like spending weeks at sea. No emergency rudder? Not enough fuel? Kids in diapers? Poor judgement. As a parent I think the kids should come fist, not the parents dream of circumnavigating. Just my opinion. Maybe when the kid are a bit older they can try again … Many thanks to our brave coast guard and navy personnel. Glad everyone is OK.

  16. Chris Burnham

    One possibility for so many swimmers is as medical support for the sick child. As a Paramedic I can tell you that pediatric calls are some of the most tense situations we encounter, and sometimes hysterical parents can endanger the providers in these situations. That’s one possibility, I’m sure there are others.

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