"The Summer of 88'..."

Written by Philip Fox Mills.

Kennedy liked to have his fellow senators around him on his watery domain, aboard his true passion the MYA. We set sail on the Wednesday prior to Labor Day weekend 1988 with Senator Kennedy as skipper and owner, of The MYA. The boat I had been deck hand on since the first regatta of the summer season, being Figawi on Memorial Day weekend. The MYA, was a 65foot schooner classic, built in the North East in the early 1900′s. This cruise with the senator, was seen as the book end to the summer.

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Senator Ted Kennedy and Friend…

On board along with Kennedy, was  myself – first mate and Simon Gore-Grimes as second in command. Simon was also a fresh off the boat Irishman. We grew up together and still are friends to this day. Kind of… Our families grew up on the water with cruising or racing being a family tradition for generations pass. When most lucky kids went on holidays to Spain or France, we would leave our local harbors and head for Scotland for a 3 week holiday in the rain, all for the love of sailing. Or a “dusting” as it was known crossing the Irish sea heading north no matter what time of year, we were guaranteed ‘too much’ weather. The remainder of our crew consisted of Senators Culver, Dodd and Wagner. Also in company, were two lady friends I can no longer recall…

“The MYA” in all her glory..(with Phil in the picture for added effect.)

We set sail from Hyannisport on a truly beautiful still evening as we headed Northward around the elbow of the cape. Conditions could not have been more tranquil.
This tranquility continued through the night and well into the next morning and on into that afternoon and evening. Tranquility meaning to others, no wind, aka the doldrums… No wind on a vintage classic means going nowhere fast at all. Kennedy was used to roaring up the coast of New England and arriving in record time to St Johns Island in Maine where Senator Tunney had his oasis.

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Simon prepping.

The doldrums would test the patient ones at best. But Simon and I remained grateful for this lack of wind. Our logic being, the less the wind the longer we stayed bobbing about the boat. And the longer we were on the boat the more we got to know our Senator laden crew. Of which, only one other had sea legs and oddly enough owned his own prized vintage classic yacht. This was Senator Dodd, a lively jovial man who was always by Kennedy’s side.  The remains of the senate on board had rarely stepped foot on such a movable object…

“EHH PHILIP!!! get the dinghy out and go find a phone signal so we can get a sea plane. We are running late!”  This was Kennedy’s latest idea. We were at sea a little over 36 hours and had not shifted north enough for Kennedy’s liking.  We were due at St Johns Island for festivities and floating about in the Massachusetts Bay was not cutting it for the senators….

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Phil aged 18.

It was then I stood up to Kennedy for the first time.  Up until now, running aground and setting sail in the middle of the night, with no real course to be plotted asides from the positioning of the drink cooler.. Now suddenly I was being asked to a solo venture in hunt for an imaginary phone signal. In all fairness, within moments Kennedy agreed that it was not a safe ploy for us to leave or abandon ship. Purely for the social aspect of them running late I suggested that hoisting Simon up the mast on the bosons chair was a clever compromise much to my amusement and delight.  Even Simon smirked as the idea of loosing ourselves in a dam dinghy could have been the end of it and ironically exactly what we were brought up to not to do.  Abandon ship nor boat.  Looking back I very much doubt even the finest government issued phone would have got any signal out there in 1988…

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The idea of being at sea as a pastime, is to unwind and enjoy the surroundings, the distant horizon and what joy that brings. It was working for all the Senate on board bar one. Kennedy was irate and could not relax nor could Simon or I as we had not slept in close to two days as compass courses had to be maintained… Our navigation equipment was kept as old school as the yacht itself, a chart of the coastline area, a sextant and a compass.  That along with Kennedy’s extraordinary ability to pinch his fingers up and down the chart like a spider and then roar a compass coarse for us to maintain, which as soon as he was not watching, Simon and I would double check his coordinates and make sure we were not headed for Iceland! By dawn of the 4th day, the Saturday of Labor Day, we approached St Johns Island in a foggy Maine haze.  We had motored for sometime during the night to make up for missing one evenings events already.  Maine was like a National Geographic carbon copy of what fiords in Norway, seemed to me.

“A plot brewing…”

As we circled close off shore to where Tunney’s Compound was on St Johns Island we found his great big old mooring box of a bouy, Kennedy asked me to fetch him an “eye Opener”  I looked quizzical at him and he explained “you know 7/8ths Vodka and  a pinch of Grapefruit, an eye opener.” Indeed I thought, except that would put me out. I was still only 18….
Once all was tied up and secured ashore, all the senate gang settled into Tunney’s great summer getaway.  Simon and I finally got to relax for the first time in what felt like an age. Which in all fairness, we spent near 4 days stressing how to get an old wooden sail boat to go faster than what mother nature would allow with the patience of a Kennedy to push us along.

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That evening Tunney’s gang invited Simon and I ashore for dinner. This was quite a change as I was well used to being left aboard with those coolers filled with cold cuts sandwiches for days.  July 4th being the most memorable example where we moored off of Gardiners Island, Long Island Sound.  I spent the entire July 4th weekend as some sort of antiquated mariner to make sure no one jumped aboard… Nor a firework to go astray on our fabulous deck….

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Upon reflection I suspect that Adrienne Tunney, Senator Tunney’s daughter had a lot to do with us being brought ashore to dinner and we hoped for her amusement. Trust me I was not complaining she was a sweet heart and not too shabby either. Her Scottish pal however was more than shabby. An older woman who seemed to maybe be in her late 20′s. I had my mind made up that she was for Simon as she looked a bit like a bulldog chewing on a wasp.  Whether this Adrienne had designs on Simon or I, I was going to best steer her my way.

Following a week of no wind whatsoever along the eastern sea board, the very next evening was to change and change fast as it can up along coastal Maine. As dinner was coming to an end, as were most of the Senators, a full gale force was blowing through.  Kennedy suggested as we were leaving the dinner table that Simon and I should go check out everything was ok on the MYA. The rest of the dinner table seemed horrified that such a thing would be considered, except for Simon and I, as we know if anything was to happen to his pride and joy the MYA, our asses would be on the line.  We headed out to the MYA, on a rubber duck with the engine in very high seas already.  Getting ourselves from the dingy up onto the deck of the grand MYA was harsh as we were being pitched and thrown like a cork-top.  Once on deck we laced down the dingy aft so as not to cause any damage banging against the beauty.

After we were both satisfied that the mooring box or Bouy of Tunney’s was secure to our bow, we both headed down below to get some shuteye.

Instinct is a funny one sometimes, especially on the water. We agreed the folksel (bow berth) was the best place for us both to kip incase anything was to happen to our secure lines tied to the bow. But of course as the night buckled into a treacherous storm we heard a loud bang and a snap. We both awoke and bolted on deck. The lines were snapping from the ferocity of the storm that was now in full swing. It was the middle of the night and doing anything was near impossible in the darkness of the Maine surroundings.
Once up on deck Simon and I realized the immediate danger the boat was under, as all our secure lines had snapped and were down to literally strings. At this point during the swell we heard voices and saw lights on the water, it was Kennedy with Tunney and a few others in his large speedboat. They had come out to check on us, or more so, check on the MYA. Our mooring was surrounded in a bay of harsh jagged rocks that would put an end to MYA in moments if we were cut loose.  We shouted back and forth at each other and realized that they were better off staying in the speedboat as they were incoherent and it was not from the windy conditions. If they were about to help us in any way, let alone get on board we would be dealing with more trouble than any wind could produce….

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The next number of hours we spent attempting to strap ourselves down to this old mooring which was not looking stable in these conditions. We had the engine running in forward at about 4-5 knots to try release some of the strain.  Just as we thought we were about to loose the MYA a very large tender came along side us again with a few Tunneys, Kennedy and some oil tycoon with his professional sailing crew who had moved their vessel into the shelter on the far side of the island before the danger arrived.  There was a lot of drunken shouting coming from that tender and not much of it made sense.  We first agreed to do whatever they wanted, then we did what we knew would make the sobering difference to keep MYA afloat.
By morning we were shattered, the boat managed to stay put at it’s precarious anchorage.  The senator clan continued about like nothing had happened until we all saw the amount of safety lines around the deck and bright work damage that had been done.  The MYA survived another close one. There was again not a breath of wind and it stayed still that way for over a week. The Senator and his senate clan took off via sea planes towards the cape, awaiting the favorable winds again… was not on their agenda.
Simon and I stayed to look after the MYA along with Adrienne and the Scots lady. In brief we hustled for poll position with Adrienne Tunney for close to a week of her having to put up with our nonce type showing off…From every fun holiday game to wuegee boards we slogged through, neither of us succeeded, god bless we tried….
As that summer was coming to an end I remember reflecting on how many close calls we had on board MYA, Le grande Fromage, (Kennedy’s Speed Boat) in small planes or the Rose Mobile… We had the shit scared out of us, all of us, more than once.  But I will never forget the face on Senator Ted Kennedy the time we were about to take off in a little bi-plane from Hyannis to some obscure little summer haven where we had left The MYA. When just before take off we swooned to an unbelievable halt for a another plane landing in our cross hairs.  He had the look of one who had far too many close calls for one lifetime and you could read that haunted look he had like a tragic novel.

The above article, is an extract of a forthcoming memoir “Summer of ’88…” By Philip”Mr Fantastic” Fox Mills an Executive Producer, at RSA New York.