SAN DIEGO — Eric and Charlotte Kaufman had already struggled for days, pounded by waves, aboard their disabled sailboat by the time skydiving National Guardsmen answered their distress call from hundreds of miles off the Mexican coast, and their vomiting, feverish, 1-year-old daughter could not have withstood much more.
"She wasn't quite on death's door yet, but a couple more days she would've been," said Master Sgt. Klay Bendle, one of the four men who parachuted 1,500 feet down to the family to give the girl medical help, then huddled with them for the next 3 1/2 days as the boat took on water, waiting for the Navy warship that on Wednesday returned them all safely to San Diego.
By the time the USS Vandegrift reached the 36-foot sailboat known as the Rebel Heart, strong winds and rough seas kept sailors from reaching them for hours.
A helicopter pilot from the Vandegrift said visibility was so poor he requested a flare signal to pinpoint the sailboat.
When sailors from the Vandegrift 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, the Kaufmans' older daughter, Cora, began to laugh in amazement.
"The 3-year-old was having a ball." Lt. Junior Grade Chris Cheezum said. "She thought it was the most fun thing ever and the rest of us were white-knuckled."
The sailboat, which had been the family's home for years, had to be sunk. They were only able to save a few of their belongings.
Despite the 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.
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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.