The Rebel Heart Parents Want to Show Their Daughters the World. The Risks Are Worth It.

Snapshots of life at home.
April 8 2014 2:49 PM

Raising a Child Dangerously

Adventure sailing with young children can be risky. It’s also the best way I know how to parent.

Maia at sunset on a calm day near New Caledonia.
Maia's adventures have given her the sense of wonder she looks at the sky with today.

Courtesy of Diane Selkirk

My husband and I are raising a child while traveling aboard our 40-foot sailboat Ceilydh. The world has two types of responses to our parenting choice: “Lucky kid!” and “That’s crazy!”

The crazy chorus is loud and angry after a fellow cruising family underwent very public rescue this past weekend. Sailors Eric and Charlotte Kaufman were sailing their vessel, the Rebel Heart, from Mexico to New Zealand with their young daughters Lyra, 1, and Cora, 3, when, 900 nautical miles from Mexico, they made an emergency call to the Coast Guard after their youngest daughter became seriously ill and the boat’s power and steering malfunctioned.

As the rescue played out in the news, with the Navy and the National Guard both stepping in, many questions were raised: Who should pay for the no-doubt costly rescue of this family? Did the Kaufmans have enough training for this big trip? And, most of all, what were they thinking taking their young daughters on such a risky adventure?

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My husband and I sailed for three-and-a-half years, over 12,000 miles, and through 10 countries before pulling into a foreign port and having a kid. We kept our adventures land-based for a while, not setting off on our daughter Maia’s first extended cruise until she was 3. At 12 years of age, Maia’s now put in more sea hours than shopping hours and is more familiar with the stars in the sky (in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres) than the ones in the tabloids. She’s graceful and self-assured, in no small part because of her unconventional childhood.

Diane's family in Fiji.
Diane's family in Fiji.

Courtesy of Diane Selkirk

Like the Kaufmans, we’re part of an international network of cruising families who make up an estimated 10-15 percent of the 10,000 or so cruising boats that are out sailing the world at any one time. (I’m actually friendly with Charlotte Kaufman, whom I met through blogging several years ago.) Currently hundreds of these families are showing their support for the Kaufmans in the Facebook group Friends of Rebel Heart and through a fundraising campaign that has raised more than $10,000 to help with their expenses (their boat was their home, and they lost it).

I’m not going to lie: Our lifestyle comes with risk. There are storms at sea, illnesses in remote locations, white-knuckle moments, and near misses. We knew the family on the Nina, the 85-year-old American schooner that disappeared after it sailed from New Zealand on May 29, 2013, bound for Newcastle, Australia. We’ve been involved in a handful of rescues and have known people who lost their boats and others who lost their lives.

One night, when Maia was 8, a weather bomb hit our Mexican anchorage. When another boat’s mayday rang out over the radio I hustled my daughter into her lifejacket, put her cat in a backpack, and held her tight. Meanwhile my husband struggled to save our boat.

Most boats are lost not because of one mishap but because of a cascade of small failures and errors. We had an unresolved engine problem and in the ferocious wind we couldn’t see where safety lay, which meant as two huge fishing boats were blown toward us we had no way to dodge them. Even if we could, we had no idea where to go. We were saved by luck and skill. Perhaps exposing Maia to that sort of danger was reckless. But to me, the potential payoff has always outweighed the risk.

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