Sailing makes the news when there’s a disaster. The rest of the time, thousands of small boats traverse the oceans in safety, carrying hundreds of families with young children. One such family, the Kaufmans, was attempting a Pacific crossing in April when an ill one-year-old and a troubled boat led them to call for help. They were rescued from their 36-foot sailboat, Rebel Heart, about 900 miles off the coast of Mexico by the California Air National Guard, the Navy and the Coast Guard. Immediately afterward, the media seized on the story, launching a vitriolic public response in their online comments sections.
The bulk of the debate was about parenting: whether the Kaufmans were good or bad parents for taking their small children out onto the big ocean. Numerous posters suggested child protective services take away their children, and the family’s blog was inundated with obscene comments.
I do not know the Kaufmans personally, so I cannot opine as to whether or not they should have gone to sea. But by the same thinking, neither can their detractors, many of whom believe sailing with children is wrong—even criminal!—no matter the condition of the boat or the experience of the parents. I disagree, and I take those comments personally.
We finished building our boat, Seal, when our daughters were two and four, so that’s when we set sail. I could claim that our job made us cruise, but the truth is, we created the job—a high-latitude charter company—so that we could cruise, predominately in remote places.
To be sure, it’s the parents who want to cruise, but over the long term, I believe it is the children who benefit. Boat kids don’t study other cultures and third world countries from books. They walk through the streets and play with the children.
Once, I commented how foreign a place felt, and my daughter Helen looked mystified; I realized they see the similarities in cultures and peoples, not the differences. What’s more, because Helen and Anna have spent months at a time in the wilderness, they don’t need video games to fulfill that craving for adventure that we all share as humans.
We knew it would be harder work to sail offshore with small children, but we had plenty of role models. We also didn’t think it mattered whether the children remembered those early years—though they do, perhaps because each adventure took place in a different country, rather than the typical child’s triangle of home/school/daycare.
Our daughters are now 12 and 13, and they have sailed about 65,000 miles. Leafing through old log books to see what we’ve been doing on the first week of April over the years—the same week the Kaufmans were rescued—I find Helen and Anna visiting the following places: Alaska; Osaka, Japan; Fjordland, New Zealand; South Georgia (Antarctica); the Chilean Channels; England; and New Hampshire, preparing for a trip to Greenland.
In all those miles, the worst accident either of my children experienced was when Anna surfed down a flight of stairs on a baby gate, smashed into Helen’s head, split it open and caused a concussion and a lot of blood. Ashore and indoors, injured by safety equipment!
Our lives are never free from risk, no matter how tightly we wrap ourselves in the protection of home and social services. Car accidents and cancer, natural disasters and human evil shadow us. Heading offshore was the best parenting decision we’ve made.
Of course, there are dangers to crossing oceans, and the Kaufmans are fortunate that their troubles didn’t start a week later when they might have been out of range of assistance. In the middle of the ocean in a small boat, you are farther from help than astronauts on the International Space Station, and in many places there is no possibility of timely assistance. The prospect of illness, injury or a crew overboard is rightly frightening.
And, sometimes things go wrong, no matter how well we plan and prepare. The Coast Guard, Air National Guard and Navy were there when the Kaufmans needed them, and I am grateful for their professionalism, skill and willingness to risk everything to jump out of an airplane to help sailors in distress.
Kate and Hamish Laird, with their daughters as crew,
run a high latitude charter sailboat in Alaska and post
their adventures at expeditionsail.com