The unbelievably large Kennedy clan became famous through the assassination of JFK and a series of equally unpleasant family tragedies. Less well known is a family member who successfully helped the Kennedys through both storms as well as calms – a keelboat named Victura.
It was Sunday, the 13th of August 1944, when a small, gaff-rigged keelboat sailed out on the Nantucket Sound, a »Wianno Senior«. Bob Kennedy later told that it was Jack who had said, »Joe would not want us to sit around and cry, he would have wanted us to go sailing.« It was a Sunday afternoon and although it might have looked like it, it was unlike any other. At noon two priests had come to the house of Joe and Rose Kennedy and had told them that their eldest son had been killed in England. Joe Kennedy Jr. had taken off with a plane loaded with explosives in the direction of France, from which he was to jump by parachute, whereupon the aircraft would be steered remote-controlled into a German V1 firing base in Normandy. The plane exploded prematurely shortly after the start. The Kennedy brothers and sisters went sailing while the father retired to his room and his mother cried in the drawing-room of the large wooden house. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (27), who was called Jack in the family, was walking along the beach. He had returned home from the Pacific War weighing only 55 kilos and had had to undergo back and intestine surgery, which is why he could not already go sailing. He watched his younger siblings out on the water. Now he was the eldest son in the family. His brother Joe had fallen in a battle against German rocket launch installations. The head of the German missile program, Wernher von Braun, was later to develop missiles for Kennedy’s NASA, and finally the church steeple-high Saturn V, which brought the Apollo missions to the moon. The political visionary John F. Kennedy launched the program of technical visionaries, but he himself never saw a Saturn V taking off. The history of the Kennedys, not only that of the President, is told in a book written by an American politician, James W. Graham, who for thirty years was the senior chief of the governor of Illinois. »Victura – The Kennedys, a Sailboat and the Sea« approaches this unusual family from an unusual perspective: from the boat*. Can a boat shape people in such a way that they become something exceptional?
Of course it can not. There are almost two hundred Wianno Seniors, and only one has had the distinction of having a president, two senators, and a half-dozen celebrities at its helm. Likewise it is impossible to derive the fortunes of a family from the fact that they drive in a VW bus. What is most remarkable is that the Kennedy family was content with a rather modest boat, although they could have afforded a real yacht. It is the father’s zest for life, which has brought his family into special positions, but sailing and the choice of the boat has played a role. For it was a boat with which young people could go out alone, on which they had to work together, had fun, competition, adventures. Like its smaller predecessors, the Wianno Senior is a kind of family youth cutter. The head of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., strived for higher things, not only just for money. He did not have an abundance of that as a young bank manager, but he got along well enough, even with so many children. After two distinguished golf clubs did not accept him as a member for various reasons – firstly he was a descendant of Irish famine refugees, secondly he was Catholic and thirdly he was a member of the nouveau riche, he supported a financially unstable sailing club on the Sound in the correct assumption that he could then hardly be denied membership. So no golf. Kennedy senior bought his first boat, the five-metre long Rose Elizabeth. Then followed the Wianno Junior The Eight Of Us (there were eight children) who later received a name upgrade to Tenovus, and when Ted was born, a second Wianno Junior came as well, One More. And finally the Wianno Senior was acquired. The children could, should and were allowed to sail. In any weather, at any regatta. The family employed a bosun, but he only had the task to teach the children knots and the basic principles of sailing and to do repairs and maintenance on the boat every now and then.
The Kennedy siblings kept together like pitch and sulfur, sailed with each other and against each other. They sailed well and collected many prizes, most successful were Joe Jr., John F. (»Jack«) and their sister Kathleen (»Kick«). Bobby, who was later to fall victim to an assassination attempt as a presidential candidate, did not sail so well, to the anger of the ambitious father. He sometimes came last. If the children did not win and it was not due to lack of effort, then this could be the reason to buy a new mainsail. But in general, they sailed at the front of the fleet, and their father was satisfied. Even though they were later sent to expensive schools and prepared for careers – on weekends they were mostly in the big house in Hyannis Port, and when they were there, they were out on the water sailing. No matter what happened. And they sailed well. In the first year in Hyannis Port, the children were sitting with their father on the terrace and saw a capsized boat and a sailor out on the water who could not get his boat up. Joe and Jack – then twelve and ten years old – raced down to the Elizabeth Rose, hoisted her sails and rescued the already struggling and weakened man. From this point of view, the Kennedys were a very normal, large family in which everyone sailed. Even if the old Yankee nobility was a bit lacking, they belonged to the privileged and to the elite. The father became ambassador in England (the maternal grandfather had already been Mayor of Boston) and the children went to school, participated in many kinds of sports and sailed on the Nantucket Sound.
Some believe that the atmosphere of competition that the father embayed in the family played a role in Joe’s death. Because as a pilot he constantly volunteered for special assignments, including the one that finally cost him his life. Was he in competition with Jack, who at this point already was a war hero? He had rescued his crew as a commander of a torpedo boat after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer in a dark night. It was a wild action in which he, with his teeth, had dragged a wounded man to an island by pulling him forward by his belt, and they were marooned there for a few days before Kennedy managed to get help. The story was taken up by the press, but the senior was annoyed that it was not printed in the high-circulation »Life«, but only in the »New Yorker«. But he did achieve that the story was reprinted in »Reader’s Digest«, which had a much higher circulation than »Life«. Even later, when Jack went into politics, his father made sure of press coverage, press coverage and more press coverage. Even things that had nothing to do with the heroic deeds of his son – for instance like his back and stomach problems – were turned into war damage. This actually partially masks the fact that the 27-year-old torpedo boat commander John F. Kennedy had done an amazing job in rescuing his crew. His brother Ted later said Jack could only have done this because he was a sailor through and through and familiar with the sea. JFK was also photographed with Jackie while sailing. The more well-known pictures are those that were choreographed by the photographer. Pictures that a sailor should actually have objected to, but as a politician one probably turned a blind eye. The jib is luffing, JFK is sitting barefoot on the foredeck on the leeward side of the boat, the wind is ruffling Jackie’s hair … But there are also good, real pictures, where Skipper Jack with his gang and brother Bobby sit in the cockpit with a good breeze and are simply sailing and having fun.
Later, right after his election as president, JFK bought a real yacht, the 23-year-old mahogany yawl Manitou. She was a fast yacht, designed by Sparkman & Stephens for offshore regattas, and at the request of the President was equipped with radio technology and a bathtub in which, among others, Marilyn Monroe is thought to have relaxed. But the little Victura remained faithful to JFK and his siblings, she was part of the family. After the president and his brother Bob had fallen victim to assassinations, Ted sailed the boat, often single-handed and at night. President John F. Kennedy († 46), the youngest elected president of the US, has remained with us through other things. There are the usual conspiracy theories about his assassination in November 1963. During his term there were the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war, the atomic arms race with hydrogen bombs, the beginning of the Vietnam War. The moon program, of which he did not see the beginning of the second phase, the Gemini flights. Everyone now knows the name of JFK Airport (formerly named »Idlewild«), New York’s main airport. For some, Jackie was more important than »Jack«, because there also was a certain Marilyn Monroe. The president enthused the Germans in his speech in West Berlin in 1962 in which he said: »Two thousand years ago, the proudest sentence a man could say was: I am a citizen of Rome. Today the proudest sentence anyone can say in the free world is: I am a Berliner.« He finished his speech a few minutes later, saying, in German: »Ich bin ein Berliner.« That meant that America did not give its support to the divided city of Berlin out of tactical reasons but out of convinction. John F. Kennedy was a charismatic man with a disarming smile, even when things were not going well. His father had actually planned that his older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr., was destined for politics, he thought the thoughtful »Jack« was more of a teacher. But then JFK suddenly became the eldest son in the clan and you can see a statement or a life’s conviction that he sent his siblings out on the water to go sailing instead of leaving them to their grief.
Text: Hans-Harald Schack. This article appeared in GOOSE No. 24