A high-seas adventure with a baby that didn’t end in disaster

April 15
Cutter Hodierne, 2, in the arms of a boy from the island of Pulap in Micronesia. Photo by Alicia Shepard
Cutter Hodierne, 2, in the arms of a boy from the island of Pulap in Micronesia. Photo by Alicia Shepard

Dear Parenting Experts Who Have Never Taken a Baby Sailing,

Yes, you. You who are so quick to harshly judge Charlotte and Eric Kaufman for taking their daughters, Cora, 3, and Lyra, 1, on the adventure of a lifetime aboard their sailboat, the Rebel Heart.

You condemn the couple because Lyra got ill at the same time their 36-foot sailboat lost its steering and left them becalmed about 900 miles from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. They called for help and four Air National Guard members parachuted into the Pacific Ocean, got the family into an inflatable boat and delivered them to a nearby U.S. Navy vessel on a training exercise.

Lyra got medical help, and recovered from a fever and full-body rash that wasn’t responding to medication.

The story inspired a boatload of criticism: the Kaufmans are a reckless couple who shouldn’t be parents. It’s fine for them to take the trip, but grossly irresponsible to bring two innocent toddlers. Good parents would never expose their children to such clear risks.

Kids should never be more than a quick car ride to the nearest emergency clinic, you say. Babies need to grow up around their peers, or their development suffers.

And the one I find most ill informed: A trip like the Kaufman’s is wasted on such young children.

With all due respect, you are wrong. From my experience, a trip like that could only positively affect a child’s development. If nothing else, they are with their parents 24/7. Such an experience inevitably defines a young child in unimaginable and unexpected ways.

In 1987, my former husband and I bought a 32-foot sailboat in San Francisco, sold everything we owned, and roamed the South Pacific for three years.

We took along our nine-month-old son, Cutter. Did I mention “Yankee Lady” was a cutter-rigged sailboat and hence his name?

We spent years planning this trip. You don’t set off in a small boat lightly. We bought thousands of dollars worth of safety equipment we prayed never to have to use. We took a celestial navigation course. We studied weather patterns. We put netting up so Cutter wouldn’t fall overboard. We bought a $2,000 GPS the size of a VHS player. (Today, they are the size of a smart phone and a tenth of the cost!) We made sure the boat was thoroughly sea worthy.

I have no doubt the Kaufmans did the same. But things happen, no matter how much you prepare. That’s kind of how life works.

Yes, Cutter too got sick. I still recall a piercing earache on Hiva Oa island, an oozing skin infection that rendered him temporarily unlovable in Papua New Guinea and more than a few bouts with diarrhea. But we always found medical help and had stocked up on antibiotics ahead of time.

In one case, a mother on Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas’ Islands spared me a visit to a medical clinic. She taught me to squeeze water from partially cooked rice that I then fed Cutter in a bottle. The diarrhea cleared up overnight.

Cutter never got sick at sea, though, and I imagine that would be incredibly frightening.

But kids get sick. If there were any downside to Cutter’s travels, it was that by the time we got to Japan in 1990, he was three and hadn’t been exposed to other kids’ germs the way most kids are. So when he entered a Japanese nursery school, he often caught colds.

Such a small price. Today he’s a strapping young man of 27 who just won Best Director at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for his feature film about Somali pirates, “Fishing Without Nets.” (Who me proud?)

He would tell you the experience of sailing for three years with his parents defined who he is today. The bio his Hollywood agent passes around begins with the sailing trip.

“I think much of Cutter’s personality grows out of the sailing,” says his dad, Robert Hodierne. “His ability to be dropped into new situations with strangers and thrive. His comfort level around people who don’t look just like him.”

Though divorced, his father and I remain friends. Naturally, we furiously emailed about the Kaufman’s woes. But we both would do the trip again in a heartbeat and are convinced, despite obvious dangers, that it shaped our boy’s thirst for adventure, his willingness to take calculated risks and most importantly, his curiosity.

It also, good or bad, made him different. His early childhood experiences, living 24/7 with his parents for the first three years of his life are not those of his peers.

But they formed him. At 24, he took his own money, and headed to Mombasa, Kenya, near the Somali border, where many Somali refugees live. He wanted to understand why someone would become a pirate. The adventure evolved into an 18-minute fictional short film. Sundance accepted it, and it won the Grand Jury prize in 2012. That led to the feature length version that debuted at Sundance in January.

At the time, my friends thought it was too dangerous and questioned how we could let him go. How could we not? Look at how he grew up.

He is not a perfect kid. And maybe he would have turned out the same without the South Pacific trip. We’ll never know.

The kind of adventure that the Kaufmans and we sought is definitely not for everyone. But please withhold your condemnation. The Kaufmans deserve our admiration and empathy.

What still seems inexplicably painful and hard to fathom is that the family had to watch as rescuers intentionally sank their boat, and with it, their dream.

Sailing With Cutter the South Pacific With a Baby Aboard

(Alicia Shepard is a longtime journalist from Arlington. Cutter Hodierne is living the dream in Los Angeles.) 

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Mary C. Curtis · April 14