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Max Kennedy Challenges Personal Demons in His Latest Book About an Adventure on the High Seas

When author and sailor Max Kennedy agrees to rehabilitate and deliver a dilapidated 90-foot wooden schooner, Valkyrien, to Washington, DC, from San Francisco, via the Panama Canal, he understands it won’t be easy, but little does he know what this journey has in store for him and his skeleton crew. His initial intention is to have an adventure at sea while assisting the Pearl Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group, in creating a museum to honor the memory of an 1848 peaceful slave rebellion aboard a schooner called the Pearl. But as Max steers the boat south, nothing goes according to plan and the trip is threatened at every juncture, requiring Max to come face-to-face with his deepest fears while battling daily mishaps and real terror at sea. In the following excerpt, taken from his riveting book, SEA CHANGE (Islandport Press/2018), he recalls the inner turmoil he experienced on the journey, as well as the resources he developed ( a big one was humor) in order to stay calm and carry on. Turning to his faith in his family, his sailing expertise honed from years on the water, and his love for—and essential trust in— the sea, Max learns to navigate treacherous waters and rise above his own fear, but not without cost. National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick describes Max’s journey as “a fascinating, harrowing, and ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s struggle with his demons and the elements.” In this excerpt, we get a glimpse into a few of those demons. Max has just sailed through a tremendous storm that has almost killed one of his shipmates….

That first night in the slip, a gale blew in and brought with it a storm of rain, lightning, and sharp thunder. We moved quickly to tie Valkyrien with longer lines around nearby pilings rather than the cleats. It raged all night, as we took turns on watch through the darkness, making adjustments to the lines as the tide came in or the wind changed direction.

All of us, including Bob, found it an exhausting night. I called Vicki from the marina and told her about the storm. It was difficult to impart the sheer fright we felt when we all thought Jasper was going to die, falling from the mast—and that somehow this nighttime storm was almost worse than the wild day at sea. I kept imagining the Valkyrien breaking free of the slip and absolutely crushing the relatively puny fiberglass boats crowded in narrow berths all around her.

I felt two distinct forms of fear in those days. The first occurred more rarely, but was absolutely raw, cutting through my skin—the fear of harming my son or my crew. I rarely consciously worried for my own safety back then. The second type of fear was more insidious, and it was related to my fear for the Valkyrien’s safety. Despite her nearly dilapidated state I had become so involved—mentally, physically, and spiritually—in the endeavor that I began to weigh danger differently. I took risks to get Valkyrien south that I would not take today.

I had invested all of myself in this voyage. Imagine driving an old Ford along a beautiful mountain road, to your mother-in-law’s home, with your children in the backseat. Snow begins to fall, and becomes a blizzard. At some point you realize driving is too dangerous, so you pull over somewhere safe to wait out the storm. Perhaps if you’d known a storm was coming, you would have canceled the trip, or waited until the roads were cleared before you would pass.

Sailing a long way in an old boat is a lot like driving a car amid a snowstorm. The competency of the captain or the driver makes a huge difference—up to a point. When a storm grows too big, there is little or nothing a captain can do to save a ship; you simply have to stay in port or you are risking too much. The captain’s trust is to weigh the chances and the consequences and in the end, bring his boat and his crew safely to their destination.

While in port I constantly ran through various scenarios in my head, trying to determine whether to sail, or wait it out. And when sailing I spent much of my days figuring out when we should return to port. I had much less confidence in my decision-making on these matters than did my wife. I was afraid that I had placed so much importance on completing the trip that I would make a mistake and sail when I should have stayed in port.

Vicki knew what I did not: that as a person—a father and a husband—my value was in no way connected to Valkyrien. Vicki never mentioned this to me—I would not have had any idea what she was talking about in any case. It is so funny to me how problems that are desperately complex and unfathomable to me are understood with complete clarity by my wife and dearest friends. So often after getting through an ordeal they point out the obvious—and I say, “Well, why didn’t you just tell me this in the first place?” They all laugh. My friends know that we could avoid a lot of angst and heartache if I could learn these lessons by reading or thinking or being told, rather than experiencing.

It is my very fortunate lot in life to have gained a wealth of experiential learning. Not all of my friends are as enthusiastic about sharing this form of education with me. A few no longer like to go sailing when it is raining.


This is excerpted from Max Kennedy’s latest book, SEA CHANGE: A Man, a Boat, a Journey Home, published by Islandport Press this year. To purchase your own copy, order at your local bookstore or on-line here, Also available as an e-book at


This excerpt was featured in the Dec. 2nd edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.