Son of Robert F. Kennedy to discuss new book at Bath museum

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BATH — A decade ago, during a challenging trek to bring a run-down schooner from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Maxwell Taylor Kennedy and his crew found themselves eye-to-eye with a small fleet of Panamanian pirates.

It’s one of many stories of perspiration and perseverance from his new book – “Sea Change: A Man, A Boat, A Journey Home” – that Kennedy, a son of Robert F. and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, will relate next week at the Maine Maritime Museum.

The 6-7 p.m. talk and book signing will take place Wednesday, Aug. 22. Tickets, available at mainemaritimemuseum.org or by phoning 443-1316, cost $7 for museum members and $10 for nonmembers.

Kennedy tries to sail to Maine every summer, he said in an Aug. 10 phone interview from the family home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. He moored last year along the museum’s Kennebec River shorefront.

“I’m so excited to be in Bath,” he said. “I love schooners more than anything in the world, and that is the heart of schooners in America. I can’t wait to get up there.”

A teacher, attorney and historian, as well as an author and sailor, Kennedy has also penned “Danger’s Hour: The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamakazi Pilot Who Crippled Her,” and “Make Gentle the Life of this World: the Vision of Robert F. Kennedy and the Words that Inspired Him.”

His adventures aboard the 77-foot wooden schooner Valkyrien are detailed in “Sea Change,” published this year by Islandport Press in Yarmouth. The crew was tasked with delivering the 1925 vessel – composed of kauri wood, and once used by the CIA as a surveillance vessel – from California, through the Panama Canal, and up the East Coast to the nation’s capital.

There, the quadruple-planked ship was to be part of a planned memorial to the 1848 Pearl incident, in which 77 African-American slaves attempted to escape Washington, D.C., on a schooner dubbed The Pearl. The Valkyrien greatly resembled that vessel, since schooners built in the decades between their construction changed little, Kennedy said.

The crew of the Valkyrian often changed, but most of the time it was just Kennedy and another person. There were some harrowing storms along the way, including one off Big Sur in California, causing the ramshackle boat’s steering connections to be lost, and its sails to blow out.

“(We) couldn’t get the engine working, and the breeze was pushing us up against the rocks, and that was very scary,” Kennedy recalled, adding with a laugh, “I was pretty much terrified for a lot of the trip.”

Then there was the pirate incident, “at the frontier of Panama and Costa Rica,” he said. “There’s kind of a lawless area there, and the coast is not really beach; it’s jungle estuaries.”

Coming around a bend, Kennedy noticed six vessels leaving the estuary together, each one containing about five men.

“They came after us; I turned the boat around, and then they essentially circled us a couple of times,” he recalled, “only about 2 1/2 feet off the side of our boat.

“I stood at the edge of the boat, and the crew kind of hid, but pretending to be armed,” Kennedy continued. Their new Central American acquaintances “rode slowly by, so that their eyes were exactly the level of mine.”

The pretense worked.

“I think they felt that we were not intimidated, although of course we were scared as hell,” Kennedy said. “Our hope was that they would think that we were well-armed.”

Asked if was good at poker, or at least able to keep a good poker face, Kennedy said with a laugh, “No, no. I was shaking.”

He didn’t fear that he and his crew wouldn’t make it to D.C., since a Boston Whaler had tagged along, “which is a pretty good escape method … but I was worried very much about the schooner.”

Sadly, the ship never made it much farther, all but sinking off Panama. It now sits in a Panama City marina.

“She was really a classic, classic vessel,” Kennedy reflected.

Meanwhile, the Pearl Coalition may lack a schooner, but it’s been active in holding programs that keep the Pearl’s story alive.

“An awareness is growing,” Kennedy said. “It’s an incident that really deserves to be better known.”

A tight-knit family

These days, Kennedy said he spends his time on a much more reliable vessel, living on a boat on the Mediterranean Sea with his wife Vicki. The youngest of their three children went away to college last September, and the empty-nesters decided to rent out their house and live on the water.

Born in New York City in 1965 and named for Gen. Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam at the time, Kennedy majored in American history at Harvard College.

Being a scion of one of the country’s most famous political families didn’t have a tremendous impact on Kennedy while growing up, he recalled, adding he’s never sought political office.

“Sailing was a much more important part of my life than any of that,” said Kennedy, one of 11 children. “Having brothers and sisters and my mother was much more important than what they did for a living.”

Who they were as people resonated more with him than what they did for a living, he agreed.

The title of Kennedy’s first book – “Make Gentle the Life of This World,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1998 – contains highlights from a journal his father added to every time he’d come upon a favorite quotation.

Robert F. Kennedy – U.S. attorney general under his older brother, President John F. Kennedy from 1961-64, and U.S. senator from New York from 1965-1968 – was on the presidential campaign trail on April 4, 1968, when news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted him to give a quick and improvised speech to a throng of supporters, encouraging the country to take up King’s mantle of non-violent civil activism.

“We can do well in this country,” Kennedy said in a transcription of the speech posted at beliefnet.com. “We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness, and it’s not the end of disorder.

“But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land,” he added, then resuming after a round of applause, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

It is from that final sentence that Max Kennedy found the title of his book. He was only 3 when, two months after that speech, his father was also killed by an assassin.

Asked how his father, 50 years later, would view the divisiveness that permeates America today, Kennedy was reticent to speak for someone else in his family. He gave the question careful thought before responding.

“He was able to speak from his heart, and to talk about the Greek philosophers who lived 2,500 years before 1968,” Kennedy said, adding that his father made those sentiments “so relevant to the group that he was speaking with, and put it in context of American history. And the idea of love and forgiveness.

“I think that that is wholly missing from today’s debate,” Kennedy continued. “It’s an astonishing tragedy that we are living through right now, in terms of the denigration of what it means to be an American, for children growing up now, and for us as well.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Maxwell Taylor Kennedy will discuss his new book, “Sea Change: A Man, A Boat, A Journey Home,” at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath on Aug. 22.

Yarmouth-based Islandport Press published “Sea Change” earlier this year.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.