It took three federal agencies, a fixed-wing aircraft, a Navy warship and scores of personnel to rescue an ill baby girl and her family from their broken down sailboat 900 miles off the Mexican coast. But the San Diego couple will not have to repay the federal government for the dramatic evacuation at sea, the agencies said Tuesday.
The Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard don't charge for search-and-rescue missions.
"We don't want people in trouble at sea to hesitate to call for help for fear they'll be charged for assistance," said Lt. Anna Dixon of the 11th Coast Guard District, which oversaw the operation but did not send vessels or aircraft to the sailboat stranded southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
She said that helping at sea is a time-honored tradition and a requirement of international maritime convention. The cost of the total operation is not known yet.
Charlotte and Eric Kaufman, who have drawn criticism for taking their 1-year-old and 3-year-old daughters on a voyage around the world, sent a call for help Thursday when their vessel, the Rebel Heart, lost its steering and communication abilities. Their youngest, Lyra, had also fallen ill, and her diagnosis still is not known.
Four California Air National Guard members parachuted into the water and swam to their sailboat Thursday night, stabilizing the girl and staying by her side as a Navy warship steamed toward the disabled vessel.
The ship picked up the family and crew Sunday and is scheduled to reach San Diego on Wednesday. After boarding the USS Vandegrift, Eric Kaufman, who's a Coast Guard-licensed capitan, and his wife issued a statement defending their decision to sail with their young children.
The question of reimbursement for a rescue operation often arises for those seen as putting themselves at risk, said Steve Ellis, a former Coast Guard officer and vice president of the Washington-based nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"You do recognize there is a potential risk of loss of life if you do require repayment, but then you look at some of these cases and think, `Gee, what an idiot. They should be paying,"' Ellis said. "I mean in my mind, who takes a 1-year-old sailing? You can't even explain to the kid how to avoid being seasick."
In recent years, the debate over who should foot the bill of sea rescue operations has extended to cruise liners carrying thousands of people out to sea that needed help after becoming stranded, he added.
As the Kaufmans headed across the Pacific, Lyra started showing salmonella-like symptoms, said her aunt Sariah English, who was in regular email contact with her sister, Charlotte Kaufman. The baby suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and fever and was not responding to antibiotics.
English, who spoke to her sister from the ship, said the baby girl's fever is gone and she has become a healthy, happy baby again with new medication.
The family lived on their sailboat for seven years before the rescue crews sank it Sunday at sea. The Kaufmans said they were well-prepared for the journey but faced unfortunate circumstances.
"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 said in a statement from the Vandegrift.
California Air National Guard spokesman 2nd Lt. Roderick Bersamina said crews improve their skills every time they carry out a rescue operation. He said that above all, "you can't put a price on a life, and there's no discrimination of who you save."
The family has said they do not want to speak to the media upon their arrival Wednesday and would like a few days to take care of their daughter and rest.
They will disembark when the ship makes a previously scheduled stop to load ordnance. The ship will continue on to Naval Base San Diego, where Navy officers plan to meet with the media to answer questions, said spokeswoman Lt. Lenaya Rotklein.