From NPR to Fox News to the New York Times and the British Telegraph the Pacific Ocean rescue of the crew aboard Rebel Heart has made some entertainment for the worldwide news peddlers. If you haven’t heard, the basic story is that a couple, Eric and Charlotte, spent two years cruising in Mexico with their first born. While there they have a second child. They waited till the new kid was about 13 months old and headed off for a trans-Pacific crossing to the Marquesas, French Polynesia. This is one of the longest, if not the longest, passage that most cruising circumnavigators sail. Its about 3,000 miles and takes 3 to 4 weeks. The crew were reasonably prepared, although they did not have significant ocean passage experience.
When they were offshore Mexico about 900 miles the youngest child got sick. The boat also had developed some issues; the steering had problems and they were taking on water when the engine was run. Charlotte was clearly tired out after the first segment of the passage. A decision was made onboard to request outside rescue help to deal with the young child’s --or do you still say baby at 13 months -- condition.
These pararescuers grabbed an unscheduled C130 flight and four of them donned swim fins and jumped out into the Pacific along with a rubber raft. The baby was stabilized onboard but the decision was made that she should be evacuated to shore for further medical evaluation and treatment. A Navy frigate arrived a day later and evacuated the family and the pararescures. In the top picture you can see the wheel from Rebel Heart being passed over to the Navy rescue boat prior to Rebel Heart being scuttled. I assume they saved the wheel as a memento – not that it is likely they they will forget about this adventure. The boat was scuttled – sunk – to avoid it becoming a hazard to navigation.
In many articles, Internet forums and blog posts and comments there have been some hard-core slamming of the family for putting their children at risk on this adventure and for abandoning the boat. When I’m on a commercial plane flight and there’s an infant within about 6 rows of me, I feel trapped and pray that the owners have appropriately drugged the child for the 3 or 4 hour journey. The last place I’d want to be is on a 3 week ocean passage on a small, bouncing sailboat with an infant. Of course, that doesn’t make it child abuse. My feeling is that when you take kids on a cruising boat it is an amazing growth opportunity for them. Life without The Mall and continuous i-connectivity. But they need to be old enough to have some sense of it. Maybe by 5 or 6 before they can really start to become part of the adventure. All parents take risks with their children. They drive them on the freeway. Some refuse to vaccinate them. Others delegate their care to outsiders. A wait of a few more years cruising closer into Mexico surely would have worked out for the better for Rebel Heart, but their decision to attempt long passages with an infant is really just a personal parenting decision, no different than the thousands of less obvious decisions that parents in suburbia make everyday. It’s not a decision I would have made, but others have. This one just turned out for the worse.
As to the abandoning of the ship. I’m sure that was a tough decision decision. The medical condition of the child was clearly beyond the state where the parents felt they could manage it. Once outside rescue help has arrived, the ball is rolling fast. The rescuers aren’t going to come out twice. The captain could have stayed with the ship and single handed the vessel the 2000 additional miles to French Polynesia, or tried to sail to windward and slogged back the 900 miles to the Mexican coast; both have been done before, but this in a boat that had reported steering and engine issues. And there would have been that small issue of not knowing how the family is doing in a time of crisis. Making the decision to abandon and scuttle the boat was probably what seemed the most reasonable at the time and it was probably pushed fairly hard by the Navy rescue team. As far as Internet facts go, it appears that the boat was uninsured, meaning they have lost their home and its contents – except the wheel – and will have to start over on land – hopefully with their family’s health intact.