I am a landlubber, but I love all things maritime whether it is naval ships, submarines, or the days of wood and sail. It started with Joseph Conrad’s sea stories and carried on through those of James Fenimore Cooper and C.S. Forster. Then there were the classic true-life sailing experiences of Richard Dana Jr. in Two Years Before the Mast and Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World through which I lived a vicarious life on the sea. While I have been on a small sailing craft (on Lake Ontario), I have never actually been on any type of craft on the ocean. I’m really an armchair adventurer, so I’m often on the lookout for books that take me to different places and put me in situations that I’ll likely never encounter.
Sea Change (2018, Islandport Press) is such a book. Maxwell Taylor Kennedy is, amongst a host of other things, an accomplished sailor, particularly on the waters around Cape Cod. He is on the board of the Pearl Coalition, a Washington DC non-profit group dedicated to memorializing the schooner Pearl, on which 77 African-American men, women, and children were trying to escape slavery in 1848. Mr. Kennedy wanted to find an existing schooner similar to the Pearl, to bring to Washington as a museum ship. He found a similar schooner in a very dilapidated, but salvageable condition in California, the Valkyrien. It was his dream to sail her from California to Washington DC via the Panama Canal.
“I loved everything about her. and the historic beauty of her hull and hardware blinded me to the rot that had settled in. Pieces of the cabin top came loose in my hand, the wood disintegrating into broken particles and a fine dust. I noted, but dismissed her flaws. She seemed seaworthy enough to make the voyage, and most of the defects could be taken care of along the way. […] 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.”
How many times throughout the voyage south from San Francisco to the Panama Canal did Mr. Kennedy wish he had never set sights on the Valkyrien? Almost every nautical mile it appeared, for there was always something that went wrong with the vessel. There were other warning signs too: hired local men would refuse to set foot upon the boat; they sensed something ominous about her. There were several times when the author came close to losing his life, and once, the life of his teen son Maxey that joined him for part of the cruise. In writing about that time, he reflects:
“Now, though, sometimes at night, just before I fall asleep, I think of Maxey struggling on the end of the bowsprit to save a decrepit boat, and my body shudders. I fear the side of me that forced him.”
There are many such ‘do or die’ moments aboard the Valkyrien. There is stinking, fetid bilge water to get rid of, irate Costa Rican Coast Guard sailors with guns, storms, rocky coastlines, failing engines and even pirates to deal with. Thousands of repairs. The allocated funds begin to fly away at alarming speeds. Still, Mr. Kennedy is maniacally driven to get to Panama where decent shipyards are available to get the needed repairs done for the second leg of the journey north to Washington DC. He later tells us:
“. . . this book is not so much about the attempted salvage of a decrepit schooner as it is one man’s attempt to come to terms with personal demons through the challenges of an ocean voyage.”
I’m not so sure about personal demons, for Mr. Kennedy is a fairly well-grounded person (he is the ninth child of the late Robert F. Kennedy) with a loving, supportive family. I believe the demons were already waiting aboard the Valkyrie (recall the crows) and would have been visited upon anyone trying to sail her out of that lonely berth in California. The voyage, however, brought out the best – and sometimes the worst – in Mr. Kennedy, but as he mentions in the book, he prefers to face danger head-on rather than dwell on any imagined fear that might grieve him.
Sea Change is a riveting sailing story, deeply thoughtful and startlingly honest in the telling. Here is a man that can take control of any situation at sea, and the outcome, while not always pretty, was one that at the very least spared your life. Whether you read this book for pure escapism or to satisfy a nautical interest, as a sailor or a landlubber, Sea Change will richly reward the attention of any reader of true adventure.
“This is a daring story of perseverance, desperation, self-enlightenment and humility. A man, a boat, a dream of the sea. This is the story of a mariner and love.”
––Captain Keith Colburn, F/V Wizard, as seen on Deadliest Catch
Sea Change: A Man, A Boat, A Journey Home by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy
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