Kennedy found solace after tragedy, exhilaration in better times on the waters of Nantucket Sound
Edward M. Kennedy’s funeral service resonated with stories of his passion for sailing. In the memories of those who knew him as a friend and sailor, the Massachusetts senator was never more in his element than at the helm of his yacht Mya, reveling in a blustery wind and a hard chop on Nantucket Sound.
“The windier it was, the more he liked it,” says Karl Anderson. Anderson, who owns a wooden-boat shop in Harwich on Cape Cod, raced with Kennedy on his classic 50-foot wooden Concordia schooner and on the 12 Meter yacht Weatherly, which they sailed to wins three years running off Nantucket. “The boat charging through the water, the sound of the wind and the waves — he loved it all.”
Kennedy, 77, died Aug. 25 at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. He had kept sailing on Mya with his wife, Victoria, and other relatives into the last weeks of his life.
Sailing had consoled Kennedy during the succession of family tragedies earlier in his life. At other times, it challenged him. Often in recent years, it gave him release from the pressures of public life and the responsibilities as patriarch of the sprawling Kennedy clan. (He was father figure to several generations of Kennedys.)
“I think he was in love with the sea. It invigorated him,” says Jack Driscoll, a Boston attorney and friend of Kennedy’s for more than four decades. Kennedy introduced Driscoll to sailing. They raced together on a Wianno Senior, the sturdy 25-foot gaff-rigged, centerboard sloop designed for the heavy airs and shoals of Nantucket Sound, and later on Mya in the annual Memorial Day weekend Figawi Race from Hyannis Port to Nantucket. “He loved to be sailing,” Driscoll says. “He loved to be on the water. He loved to race.” And in tough times, he found a sense of peace and contentment in the sea, Driscoll says. He sought solace there.
“The sea for me has always been a metaphor for life,” Kennedy told filmmaker Ken Burns in a video tribute to the senator that first aired at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, then again at Kennedy’s funeral at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. “I mean, the sea is a constantly evolving, changing, shifting aspect of both nature and of life. That sort of exposure to the sea is both enriching and enhancing — and it’s fun.”
Driscoll says Kennedy was an incredibly hard worker. At the Capitol, he was at breakfast meetings from 6 to 7 o’clock many mornings. A day at the office could go to 10, 11 or 12 o’clock at night. The demands of making public policy, responding to constituents, and shepherding Kennedy family affairs took its toll. Sailing gave him release, and he took every chance he could to return to Hyannis Port to do it.
Sailing was a joy he always came back to. It reminded him of more idyllic times as a youngster, when he and brothers Joe, Bobby and Jack would go sailing together, Driscoll says. His time on Mya often was time for family and friends. “You’d hear him say, ‘This is such a beautiful day. Let’s get out on the water,’ ” Driscoll recalls. He often sailed Mya well into November to Thanksgiving Day. Driscoll remembers brushing a dusting of snow off the 1940 Concordia schooner (built at the Duxbury (Mass.) Boatyard) before one such outing.
When Kennedy speechwriter and political consultant Bob Shrum huddled with the senator at the family compound on a project, Kennedy sometimes would shanghai him into going out on the boat, though he was no sailor. Two summers ago at Hyannis Port, the two went sailing in the morning and came home for lunch. They went back out in the afternoon and came in for dinner. Then — such was his passion for sailing — they went out on a midnight sail. Coming back in, the engine conked out at the mouth of the harbor. Kennedy threaded his way through the moored boats under sail and picked up Mya’s mooring at the family compound on the first pass.
“He really, really knew how to sail that boat,” Shrum says.
He also knew how to race it. He was a fierce competitor and exuberant skipper. “When we raced, we raced very hard,” Anderson says, with Kennedy relishing his role as master and commander. “He enjoyed barking out the orders — in a fun way.”
“He was a very intense competitor,” agrees David Crawford, chairman of the Figawi Race and a sailing instructor for many of the younger Kennedys. The elder Kennedy raced in the Figawi 30 years running. “He pursued the sport with as much intensity as anyone I know,” Crawford says. “He wanted to win.” Still, Kennedy was humble. He admitted his mistakes on the race course, learned from them, and practiced harder so he would do better next time, he says.
“He was a hard worker,” Crawford says. “He knew the sport, he knew the waters and the winds. He knew how to drive the boat. He was a good tactician, a good helmsman — a good all-around sailor.”
Many also will remember him as a very good and very loyal friend, says Driscoll. That’s not a bad way to be remembered.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.