Adventurous or stupid? These adjectives and more are being used to describe the Kaufmans, a couple that embarked on a trans-Pacific sea voyage aboard a sailboat with their two very young children. On Sunday, the family was rescued by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and the Air National Guard after their 13-month-old daughter Lyra became ill and their boat “broke down,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Since the rescue first made news, both supporters and critics have made their opinions known on social media including on the Kaufman family’s Facebook page, Rebel Heart. Many have praised the pair, Eric and Charlotte, for living out their dreams and giving their children such unique, enriching experiences. The American couple had lived on a boat for years — Eric is a Coast Guard-licensed captain, according to the couple’s blog — before having children and, most recently, lived in Mexico.
The Kaufmans have defended their decision to sail the Pacific with their children, saying “we prepared as well as any sailing crew could.”
But those blasting the couple aren’t mincing words.
“Proof that you don’t have to have a brain to be a parent! My hope is that some agency steps in to protect those little girls from their reckless parents,” one woman wrote.
My gut reaction wasn’t exactly positive either. I thought taking my two sons, who happen to be roughly the same age as the Kaufman’s children, on a plane flight to Florida was adventurous enough. But as someone trained to question conventional wisdom, I wasn’t eager to pile on. Instead, I decided to see if I get a more dispassionate take from someone with a clinical view of children’s safety — a pediatrician.
I asked Dr. Dyan Hes, the founder of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, what she would advise a family considering spending weeks or months alone at sea.
The short answer: If the kids are under 4, Hes said, it’s a bad idea.
“Little children have very little immune systems and they get sick,” Hes said. “When you’re not a physician, you’re very powerless to help your child.”
Hes said that for a long sailing trip, she’d be especially concerned about seasickness, dehydration, and sun exposure. While some have argued that the children’s relative isolation on the boat would protect them from illnesses young children often pick up at preschool or daycare, Hes said that children are still vulnerable to getting sick from the naturally occurring bacteria on their own bodies.
“You can get a skin infection from scratching your skin from the normal flora on your body,” she said.
Hes also questioned how much the Kaufmans could have done if there’d been the kind of incident mischievous babies are known for — swallowing foreign objects.
“What happens if the baby swallows nail polish on your trip?” she asked. “What are you going to do?”
Hes, herself a mother of two, said that if you do still want to take the kind of trip the Kaufmans were planning — the couple had intended to make it all the way to New Zealand — wait until your children are fully vaccinated and are mature enough that, if they are sick or hurting, they can clearly tell you how they’re feeling.
By age 4, she said, kids will generally meet that threshold.
Dr. Beth Ebel had additional advice to seafarers toting children. Ebel — who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention — said that for such trips, “It is important that there is a way to communicate, that others know the planned route and have regular check-ins, that all are wearing appropriate life jackets, and that child needs are being met” with respect to “food, safety, care (and) shelter.”
But Ebel, too, expressed skepticism.
“I imagine it might be possible to manage all this on a boat (but it) wouldn’t be my choice,” she said.
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