SAN DIEGO – The family of four with a seriously ailing 1-year-old had already struggled for days aboard their 36-foot sailboat by the time skydiving National Guardsmen answered their distress call from hundreds of miles off the Mexican coast.
"They were elated, they were ecstatic," when the four pararescuemen jumped 1,500 feet out of an aircraft into the open sea to reach them and stabilize the child, Capt. Lejon Boudreaux, combat rescue officer for the California Air National Guard, said Wednesday after the family was delivered safely to San Diego.
Eric and Charlotte Kaufman along with their daughters Cora, 3, and Lyra, 1, had been on a round the world cruise when Lyra's illness forced them to call for help.
But even with the arrival of the rescuers, their ordeal on the open Pacific Ocean was hardly over.
For the next 3 ½ days the family and the crew members huddled together on the disabled boat as 8-foot waves pounded them. The boat took on water.
By the time a Navy warship reached the Rebel Heart, strong winds and rough seas kept sailors from reaching them for hours.
A helicopter pilot from the warship, the USS Vandegrift, said visibility was so poor he requested a flare signal to pinpoint the sailboat.
When sailors from the Vandergrift finally reached the sailboat Sunday morning, 5- to 8-foot waves forced them to offload one person at a time to a pitching rescue boat. The effort took two hours.
"Stand on top of a 6-foot ladder, have a friend throw a bucket of saltwater in your face, rinse and repeat for two hours," Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Ian Matthew Gabriel said in describing the conditions.
But once the rescue boat started speeding toward the frigate, Cora began to laugh in amazement.
"The 3-year-old was having a ball. She thought it was the most fun thing ever and the rest of us were white-knuckled," Lt. Junior Grade Chris Cheezum said.
The sailboat had to be sunk. The family was only able to save a few of their belongings.
Despite their ordeal, the family looked like typical vacationers in a photo released by the Navy after the ship docked at Naval Air Station North Island. Father Eric was dressed in shorts and a baseball cap while lugging bags, and his wife walking behind, holding Lyra in a strap-on carrier and grasping Cora's hand.
The Kaufmans' decision to sail around the world with two young children drew accusations of recklessness from some observers and praise from others for their courageous spirit. Critics also urged the government to bill the family for the rescue expenses.
The Kaufmans first want to tend to Lyra and get some rest before talking publicly, Charlotte Kaufman's sister, Sariah English, said.
The couple sent a statement from the ship on Sunday defending their actions, saying "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."
Eric Kaufman is a Coast Guard-licensed captain.
When they first set off from San Diego on their cruise, Charlotte Kaufman was pregnant with Lyra. They stopped in Mexico for the birth. The baby had salmonella in Mexico but her pediatrician had assured them she was over it and safe to travel when they set off again on their voyage last month, English said.
But shortly into the trip, she started showing symptoms and did not respond to antibiotics. Then the Rebel Heart lost its steering and communication abilities. The Kaufmans used a satellite phone to call the Coast Guard for help last Thursday.
"She wasn't quite on death's door yet, but a couple more days she would've been," Master Sgt. Klay Bendle, one of the pararescuemen, said after returning to base at Moffett Airfield in Northern California.
"They were really appreciative. They were actually surprised that America would spend the effort and the time and dollars and possible lives to go and help them out," Bendle said.