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 on Wednesday at the Maine Maritime Museum.

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 2½ 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.”

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.

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

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 Wednesday.Aug. 22

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


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: