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A Kennedy redefines “sea change”

Shakespeare first used the expression “sea change” to mean a transformation brought about by the sea. Today a sea change can refer to a physical transformation or a paradigm shift in policies, attitudes, or approaches.

Not by chance Sea Change is the title of Maxwell Kennedy’s most recent book, deliberately evoking both meanings. No surprise: Kennedy is an accomplished sailor AND a member of one of America’s most accomplished political families.

Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, the ninth son of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, spent his childhood summers in Hyannis Port, Maine, and knows the world’s oceans as sailor, diver, and environmental advocate. (That’s in his spare time: professionally he is a lawyer, lecturer, and field organizer, as well as best-selling author).

“Sailing has been a family tradition for 100 years,” he emphasized during an address at the Prix Costa Smeralda ceremony in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, on April 27, 2019, which he attended as a guest speaker. He charmed the audience by observing, “Hyannis Port is like Sardinia: everyone loves the sea and everyone is Catholic.”

Kennedy has the tousled hair, toothy smile, and rugged good looks characteristic of his family. He has a mariner’s tanned face, broad shoulders, and large powerful hands. (One can’t help contrasting them with the doughy form and small hands of another public figure).

Democrats Abroad had a chance to speak with Kennedy during the Prix Costa Smeralda event. We asked him first about his book and then about the current political situation in the US.

His narrative recounts a voyage undertaken by him and others, including his teenage son, from San Francisco towards the East Coast on a dilapidated wooden sailing schooner, the Valkyrien.

The ship had caught his eye because it was similar in age and construction to a schooner, Pearl, used by 77 African-Americans in Washington, DC, to escape slavery in 1848. Kennedy is on the board of the Pearl Coalition, a group trying to set up a museum in DC to commemorate this event. The 90-foot Valkyrien looked right as the linchpin of such a museum, so Kennedy set sail from California with a skeleton crew and a plan to guide the vessel through the Panama Canal to Florida and up the Eastern seaboard to DC.

What happened next was confirmation of Murphy’s Law: leaking ship, terrible weather, 40-foot waves, technical problems, some inexperienced crew, and a parade of colorful seaside characters. When the Valkyrien was passing Big Sur in very high winds, recalled Kennedy, his two hoisted sails exploded. He sent his son Max out to attach new sails to the bow sprint so the boat could be steered to safety, although the bow sprint was submerged as often as it was above water. “I had to count to myself every time my son disappeared under the waves. That was one of the times I really regretted having brought him.”

“But the book is not just the story of one sea journey,” Kennedy insisted. “It is about the sea and life and winning and losing and the importance of family.”

He found the ocean in disastrous shape. “The coral reefs are dead. You see plastic floating everywhere and many places where there was no more fish. Turtles are dead {from the plastic}.

“Plus there is still slavery at sea, which nobody talks about. Slaves are kept on ships working to catch fish, buyers come onboard to remove their catch and then the fishing vessels sail on. Many pet food companies buy the products of this illegal fishing by slaves. It takes place more than 200 miles offshore so it is hard for governments to intervene. Since the ships have flags from places like Bolivia, a landlocked country, intervention is even more difficult. This is a real disaster and 10,000 people die on the ocean every year as slaves while politicians do nothing.

“The ocean is not beyond repair. Political will is needed. We can improve, but not just by acting as individuals. We have to influence the behavior of politicians.”

By way of illustration, Kennedy noted that if someone were to deliberately drop oil on a beach in New Jersey, people around would be at arms. But when British Petroleum dropped 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and continued it for 87 days in the spring of 2010, essentially no one said anything.

Still, the activist remains optimistic. “We live in a democracy and governments will respond if people exert their power and force politicians to pay attention,” he insists. “People will take action for the environment if they think their livelihoods are threatened. Organization is needed at the grassroots level. There are plenty of active groups but they have to work across state lines to be persuasive.”

Asked his preferences in the 2020 presidential primary, Kennedy was again upbeat . . . and unspecific. “What we need is someone who can beat Trump. We shouldn’t exclude a woman.”

He ended the interview with kind words for DA. “I am impressed by the work done by Democrats Abroad. They are very well organized, and that is what we need — organization. The NRA is well organized and they get results. We should do the same. It’s all a matter of political will.”

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