LOS ANGELES -- As her family began what was supposed to be a months-long journey in a 35-foot sailboat from Mexico to New Zealand, Charlotte Kaufman wrote openly of her misgivings about taking her two daughters -- ages 1 and 3 -- to sail the South Pacific, with her husband as captain and herself as the crew.
"I think this may be the stupidest thing we have ever done," she wrote in her trip blog, before concluding: "It is a difficult self-imposed isolation that is completely worth it."
Less than two weeks later, 900 miles off the coast of Mexico, Charlotte and her husband, Eric, unable to steer their ship, the Rebel Heart, called for emergency help. Their younger daughter, Lyra, who had been treated for salmonella just weeks before the trip, was covered in a rash and had a fever. After a complicated rescue effort orchestrated by the California Air National Guard and the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, the Kaufman family was on a Navy ship heading to San Diego, scheduled to arrive Wednesday.
But well before they set foot on dry land, the Kaufmans have become the focus of a raging debate over responsible parenting. Some readers of their blogs have left blistering comments suggesting that the authorities should take their children away, seizing on such details in Charlotte Kaufman's postings as the baby rolling around and unable to sleep because of the ship's violent pitch, and soiled diapers being washed in the galley sink.
Experienced sailors have also shaken their heads.
"I have a rule in my mind that I would never bring a kid less than 2 years old," Matt Rutherford, who has completed several solo journeys across the seas and is planning to sail to Japan from northern California this month, said in an interview. "There's some real risks here, and you bring somebody else along and you're taking the risk for them, too. That's a serious question."
Still, other observers said the family was doing the right thing by following their passion and involving their children early. Pam Wall, who began sailing with her children when they were infants and traveled around the world with them for nearly seven years, said the Kaufman family -- whom she does not know -- had seemed to take the necessary precautions. "There were probably a series of events that two people just couldn't handle," said Wall, who has served as a consultant for dozens of families contemplating similar trips.
She often tells them the sooner they get their children aboard a boat, the better. "The whole idea of being a family that goes out to sea is that you are totally self-sufficient," Wall said.
But critics have borne down not only on the couple's parenting judgment but also on their qualifications as sailors and the expense involved in their rescue, with some calling for them to be forced to pay the tab. The rescue effort involved three state and federal agencies and had California Air National guardsmen parachuting from helicopters into open waters to escort the family into inflatable boats before their ship was sunk on purpose.
James Gardner, 56, a fisherman from Oceanside, Calif., who said he had spent 45 years on the sea and now owns a bait shop near the docks, called the decision to take such young children on such a journey "ridiculous."
"Teenagers, maybe, but kids of those ages -- I think it was asinine," Gardner said in an interview. "He put his family at risk. Any Joe can take a Coast Guard course and you are a captain -- it is just above a cereal box certification."
The couple had spent months preparing for the ocean crossing. They chose a route that is generally considered safe by experienced sailors -- traveling along trade winds and waiting for the right conditions. Charlotte Kaufman posted pictures on her blog and Facebook of mounds of food and diapers nestled into the boat's crevices.
Just days before they were to set sail, Charlotte Kaufman and Lyra were told they had salmonella and given antibiotics, according to posts on her blog. They postponed the trip for a couple of weeks and apparently had clearance from their family doctor in a small town on the coast of the state of Nayarit, Mexico, where they had been living since last year preparing for the trip.
Dr. Beth E. Ebel, an attending physician at Seattle Children's Hospital, said it would not be unreasonable to take children on such a trip. "I think people should take the big important precautions, like wearing life jackets, but I don't fault them for being out of instant touch with modern medicine," she said. "It's our job to be prepared and to have a backup plan. It sounds like they needed their backup plan and executed it."
But some parenting experts said in interviews Monday that they took a dim view of the whole expedition. "I am very much anti-Bubble Wrap and think we should be giving our kids safe risks, but that doesn't mean exposing them to actual risks," said Ashley Merryman, a co-author of a parenting book called "NurtureShock." "It's not as if a 1-year-old is going to remember an experience, whether it's positive or negative. We all need to think about what they are really ready for."
Even some family members questioned their actions. Charlotte Kaufman's brother, James Moriset, told a San Diego television station that he refused to send them off.
"I saw this coming -- I saw the potential for every bit of it," Moriset said. "I don't understand what they were thinking to begin with. I'm sorry, I don't even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it's like taking them out into the big ocean?"
In a statement issued from aboard the Navy ship, the Kaufmans vigorously defended their actions.
"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," the couple wrote. "The ocean is one of the greatest forces of nature, and it always has the potential to overcome those who live on or near it. We are proud of our choices and our preparation, and while we are disappointed that we lost our sailboat and our home, we remain grateful for those who came to our aid and those family and friends who continue to encourage and support us."
By JENNIFER MEDINA
The New York Times