For sailors out there, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy’s newest book, Sea Change: A Man, A Boat, A Journey Home, provides a gripping adventure even a landlubber would appreciate. With the swagger of a sea story, a monumental task pursued, hardships faced with subtle glints of humor thrown in for measure, the book tackles the reality boats bring to their owners— boats are a living, breathing, man-made creation, wrapped in beauty, yet flawed and sometimes even cruel in manner.
Kennedy is no novice when it comes to sailing. Born in New York City, Kennedy spent much time on the waters of Cape Cod, and, as the ninth child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, quickly learned sailing was as much a Kennedy “thing” as was politics. Though politics posed a brief temptation for the author, it was sailing and adventure that won out. Today, Kennedy, a Harvard graduate in history, lawyer and teacher, lives on a boat full-time in the Mediterranean Sea with his wife Vicki.
“So many people have asked me why I sail. I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. The truth is, I do not know. But no sailor has ever asked this question—they all understand.”
The adventure began 10 years ago. Kennedy, working for a group called The Pearl Coalition, was in search of a vessel that would become a memorial to the Pearl incident of 1848. On April 15, 1848, 77 African American slaves attempted to escape from Washington D.C. on a schooner named The Pearl and sail to the free state of New Jersey. Captured two days later, the organized escape became a catalyst for the Compromise of 1850, which led to the end of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. It is also believed that the incident inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.
Kennedy’s finding of Valkyrien, a 77-foot wooden schooner built in 1928, along with her complete (used loosely) retrofit, is a story all by itself. With an assortment of characters— some with skills, some clueless— Kennedy begins the task of readying the Valkyrien, after years of neglect, for her maiden voyage from California to Washington D.C., by way of the Panama Canal and up along the East Coast. When he first saw her, heavy and appearing to be aground, the giant schooner with two masts did not move against the dock.
“The original Pearl had been built to trade goods on the Eastern Seaboard—lamb’s wool, iron, lumber, corn. Valkyrien had been built in New Zealand to trade similar goods among harbors and islands of that nation. The two schooners were about the same length and breadth,” he writes. “The Valkyrien appeared to be the answer to our dreams. Just then, I looked up and saw two black crows sitting on Valkyrien’s spreaders, cawing. Another warning sign. It’s an old sailor’s superstition that a crow on a boat in port is a bad sign. I thought to myself, turn around right now. Leave this boat.”
Not listening but rather trusting in what he knows, Kennedy did not leave the boat. Instead, Kennedy began his journey by salvaging what he could, building what he must, and over the course of one year he struggled to fulfill a dream and then, when it was all over, live to tell about it.
Along the way there would be storms, deteriorating conditions of both boat and crew, Panamanian pirates, boredom, joyous encounters, systems failures, financial struggles, family assistance and family love, nautical details, smells of decaying wood and bilge water, sometimes maniacal tendencies, humility, and a mariner’s desire, determination and ultimate decision that will leave one asking, What if?
This book reminded me of the old English idiomatic expression, sea change, used appropriately enough as the book’s title, and its meaning of a transformation or radical change in something or someone. Within the framework of this book, simply put, it is a metamorphosis brought about by the sea. The pages of this book are filled with many changes wrought by the sea on Kennedy personally, on his boat, his crew, and on the reader fortunate enough to give this book a chance.
Some of these changes you will find are subtle, some, profound, all are still very real, and, in certain circumstances, some are the difference between life and death. These changes and their impact on the decision-making process when at sea give any reader (landlubber or sailor) a real glimpse into a mariner’s approach and his relationship with a boat, especially when a daunting challenge is undertaken.
Sea Change is a journey — a journey that begins when a sailor first sets eyes on a boat and decides the two, together, will rely on one another through the good and the bad, and that the voyage, no matter the outcome, is always embraced by the heart of its captain with that of the sea.
Islandport Press, 2018 Softcover, $16.95