Rescued at Sea: Who Foots the Bill?

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A couple sailing with their 1-year-old infant girl required rescue involving the Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard Sunday, after the baby became ill. The couple's 36-foot sailboat lost its ability to steer and communicate about 900 miles off the coast of Mexico.

Eric and Charlotte Kaufman are sailing around the world with their two young girls and blogging about their adventures. About two weeks into their trip, the baby showed signs of a fever and developed a rash that wouldn't respond to medication.

Some question not only the dangers posed by taking an infant (and her 3-year-old sister) to sea but also the costs of search and rescue (SAR) if something goes wrong.

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Our friends at How Stuff Works report that the Coast Guard rescues an average of 114 people a day at a cost of about $680 million annually. It costs about $1,600 to fuel a standard helicopter and a Coast Guard patrol boat costs $1,147 to operate. If a search requires a C-130 turboprop plane, the fuel bill jumps to $7,600 an hour. And these costs don't include pay for the rescuers, or their training.

The Kaufman's case required four rescuers to parachute into the open water and climb aboard the sailboat, called the Rebel Heart.

A Coast Guard spokesman told USA Today there were no plans to charge the family.

"We're not concerned with that right now,'' Petty Officer Second Class Barry Bena said, "and it's usually not an issue. We're here to provide public service. If U.S. citizens need assistance, that is our main priority.'' The Kaufman's rescue was "a public service we provide to U.S. citizens in distress.''

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A California Air National Guard spokesman had similar comments: "Bottom line, you can't put a price on life," said Lt. Roderick Bersamina.

Policies vary by state for rescues involving local law enforcement. New Hampshire, for example, has an aggressive policy to recoup search and rescue costs. And in Colorado, those who venture off the beaten path are strongly enouraged to pay for a $3 search and rescue card that keeps them from being billed for associated costs if needed.

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However, as with the Coast Guard the National Park Service, which also spends millions a year in SAR costs, does not charge those who are rescued. The taxpayers absorb those costs.

As far as the Kaufmans, family members expressed concern at the very idea of the trip. But at least one relative says they made careful preparations -- and Eric Kaufman is a Coast Guard licensed captain.

"They were very overcautious. They're not new at sailing," said Kaufman's sister, Sariah Kay English. Unfortunately, "sickness sometimes happens."

PHOTO: An HH-65C Dolphin demonstrates a helicopter rescue. Credit: Getty Images

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