Sailing the World (Pregnant)
Part 2: A fearless San Diego couple, mid-journey around the world, docks in Puerto Vallarta for a natural birth.
I was 25 weeks pregnant when we pulled away from San Diego’s America’s Cup Harbor and turned our sailboat, Rebel Heart, southward. I envisioned dolphins leaping in our bow wake, and my two-year-old daughter sitting next to me in the cockpit pointing out turtles, gray whales, and rays.
We were setting out on our around-the-world tour, with a planned stop in Puerto Vallarta to have a child. We would sail south, dock, find a hospital, have a baby, recover, and set sail for the South Pacific. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
By this point in my pregnancy we had figured out the type of medicine I needed to keep seasickness at bay, but it also made me terribly drowsy. So after waving goodbye to friends in the early morning light, Cora and I ambled down to her berth and collapsed in an exhausted heap. We slept as my husband, Eric, crossed the maritime boundary of the United States and Mexico and only came to several hours later as we approached the welcoming coastline of Ensenada and Mexico’s official port of entry for all international vessels.
Entering Mexico was a breeze, but as we prepared to leave Ensenada I was experiencing sciatic pain so severe I could barely walk or sit. I was anxious about taking seasickness medication for weeks at a time, and I had no idea how I’d care for my two-year-old in those conditions, in a sailboat, underway, bumping down the coastline of Baja.
A few hours later, our autopilot broke and that settled that. Eric turned our boat around and we hand-steered several hours back to Ensenada so he could fix it. While he steered, I talked. I told him that it was not a good idea for me to continue on our family sail around the world, at least for the next few months. It wasn’t an easy decision. This was a joint dream. Something to say we had done together, from start to finish. But babies have ways of changing dreams.
Charlotte and Danny Kaufman with Cora and baby sister Lyra, born on Valentine’s Day in Puerto Vallarta. “Our newest sailor and intrepid adventurer.”
Cora and I drove back across the border into San Diego and flew to my sister Sariah’s house in Albuquerque, while Eric began a single-handed adventure that would take him three weeks to complete. My intuition had been right. While I waited for Eric I was rushed to the hospital three times for pre-term contractions and a horrible case of pregnancy-induced kidney stones. Had I gone with Eric, I would have needed to be flown out of a remote fishing village in Baja because of those complications.
We were finally reunited in the small village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. (Eric had sailed Rebel Heart there on his own.) Only 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, “La Cruz,” as the locals call it, is close enough to Puerto Vallarta to enjoy all its amenities and far enough away to lull you into the tranquility of its slow, sleepy fishing-village way of life. We all gave a collective exhale and relaxed.
As my due date approached, we rented an apartment for the month. We found an ob/gyn through another boat family that had had two babies in Puerto Vallarta. The ob/gyn recommended San Javier Marina Hospital for the most up-to-date neonatal care. Both my sister and my doula, Amanda, flew down for the birth.
On the night I went into labor, I had been surrounded by family and friends all day and felt incredibly at peace. Around 9:30 p.m., Eric came home from spending an evening gorging himself on tacos and Mexico’s finest beer. We were both rolly with happiness. I thought I was again experiencing false contractions when I had a slightly more uncomfortable contraction and thought, Hmmmm. I silently cheered, thinking this could be the true beginning of a few days of “real contractions” before things finally got moving.
Toward midnight I had a contraction so strong it made me moan. I knew it was the real thing. I waited and about three minutes later, another hit. I moaned aloud again and Eric’s voice called from the other side of the bed.
Flinging back the covers, I stood up and announced, “I’m waking up Sariah. This is it.”
When I shook my sister awake she had that crazed half-asleep half-alert mom gaze that all mothers cull over years of random nighttime awakenings from their own offspring. The veteran mom of three that she is, she was already up and slipping out to the downstairs apartment to wake up Amanda.
I called our friend and neighborhood taxi driver, Oscar, whom we first met when we came to La Cruz. He had shuttled us many places and had already offered to be on call, day or night. He was clearly sleeping before he answered the phone. In Spanish I explained that it was “go time” and he could hear in my voice that I was serious. He said he would be there in 10 to 15 minutes.
By now things were moving fast. As each contraction hit, the intensity increased. Our driver arrived and Amanda and Eric helped me up the stairs and to the waiting taxi... Only it wasn’t Oscar’s taxi waiting for us, it was a huge van he must have borrowed for the occasion. As long as Oscar was driving, and Eric and Amanda were there, I didn’t care. In I climbed. Oscar had graciously brought a pile of blankets, so I grabbed one and shoved it between my legs just in case my water broke.
I turned backwards, on my knees, and hugged the seat for dear life. Oscar pulled away and my heart stopped when I realized the van couldn’t make it up the steep incline.
Another contraction hit and Eric jumped out of the van, trying to help Oscar back the van down from the hill without it clipping the side of the driveway or hitting any of the cars in the parking lot below. At times I could see Eric was behind the van and I could just picture Oscar letting go of the brakes for a second and Eric being crushed. I yelled at Amanda to tell Eric to get out of the f’ing way. Amanda, awesome doula that she is, relayed the message almost exactly.
I started to panic realizing how quickly I was progressing, and felt terrified that I was stuck in some pregnant woman’s purgatory as the men stood around a vehicle scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do. I tried so hard to convey my fear that the baby would arrive at any minute, but another contraction came and all I could do was moan. As the van tried to climb the hill, to no avail, my water broke. I thought about giving birth in the van.
“Amanda, Eric! I NEED an ambulance or a taxi!” If I had known the number for 911 in Mexico I would have just called it myself.
And then I heard a new voice. Eric was talking to a woman outside the van. I saw her face for a split second and then another contraction hit. In a moment, Eric and Amanda guided me to a waiting car. The woman’s voice was calling from a small, VW Golf-like car. Someone explained that the man in the driver’s seat and the woman were our neighbors and had offered to give us a ride to the hospital. The woman, whose name was Georgina, told me to get in the front. I assumed the same position, on my knees, facing backwards, hugging the seat as everyone else piled in the car. Her husband, Danny, drove.
In between contractions, I told both Georgina and Danny that I loved them. I had never met these people. But I loved them. Danny had a wonderful British accent and Georgina was Mexican with the luxurious accent of someone speaking English who has grown up in Mexico City. I don’t know what their faces looked like. I still don’t have a picture of either of them and never got a chance to meet them after the birth.
As we got on the main road from La Cruz to Puerto Vallarta, Danny hit the gas and I started to really focus on my contractions, but it’s uncomfortable to be laboring on your knees, backwards in a car, while hurtling 80 mph down the highway. My shoulders were sore for days afterward from the death grip I had on the seat. I’m pretty sure I drooled all over their upholstery. The only thing that got me through the trip was Georgina and Eric’s ongoing narrative of exactly where we were along the way. They’d tell me landmarks to encourage me and let me know how close we were getting.
I remember hearing Georgina’s voice as she chided her husband for slowing down at red lights instead of barreling through them. “Go ahead, go for it!” she urged. But then his reassuring British accent would respond, “Listen, I’m trying to be safe.”
“I’m not sure who saw the cop first...” The Kaufmans’ wild midnight ride to the hospital gets some assistance from a police escort.
I’m not sure who saw the cop first, but someone pointed to him as we flew down the highway, and Georgina rolled down her window and gesticulated to me in the front seat, asking for a police escort. The guy didn’t even blink. He just reached forward, flipped on his lights, and sped ahead of us, creating a path through the nighttime traffic on the highway.
“Sooo fast,” I bellowed. “Owwwwww!”
“We’re almost there, honey,” Eric said.
And finally someone was telling me to get out of the car as Eric thanked our good Samaritan neighbors. Once the birth team was set up, it only took 20 minutes of pushing until she was with us. And she was perfect. So big, just like her sister. With the same eyes and the same head of hair. I was overcome. Lyra Estrella Kaufman was born at 3 a.m. on February 14. Our Valentine’s Baby. Our newest sailor and intrepid adventurer.
The most important part of this story is that Lyra made it safely—that we all made it safely, really, on the first leg of our journey around the world. With our sailboat and our new baby now on the Pacific coast of Mexico, we were a new family unit of four and, looking ahead, we had exactly 11 more months until the weather window opened up for us to cross to the South Pacific. The question then was, what to do for the next 11 months as we waited? And the only answer was to sail into the Sea of Cortez to find more adventures ahead.