Skip to content

Kayaking with a Kooky Kennedy

I was surprised recently to see that the only Democrat challenger to Joe Biden’s bid to go another round was seemingly a political newcomer with a familiar name: Robert F Kennedy, Jr. Bobby Kennedy was 9 when his uncle was assassinated and 14 when his father was gunned down, and has been a charismatic leader of the Kennedy clan for decades, despite – and maybe partly because of? – his early struggles with addiction. He was instrumental in dramatically increasing the power and efficacy of the Riverkeeper organization that got its start literally saving the Hudson river from massive pollution and since has had extraordinary success in suing the likes of Exxon and New York City to clean up their huge messes, and has been called a “Hero of the Earth” by Time Magazine. And most recently, he’s received a lot of notoriety as….a huge anti-vaxxer? And now a potential presidential candidate? And….he’s a kayaker!

in about nineteen hundred and ninety seven I was living in Ventura, CA working for Patagonia and was trying hard to take advantage of the unlimited opportunities for high level outdoor activities in SoCal; the rivers, road riding, mountain biking, climbing, etc are all incredible, and I spent a lot of weekends gallivanting around the state chasing water and rocks. But one weekend I was home, partly because the day before was a rare Patagonia all-company meeting that involved working at a local farm and ended in a big dinner and a keynote speech by a friend of the Chouinards by the name of Bobby Kennedy Jr. It was a rousing, impressive speech; RFK jr was passionate, eloquent, rattled off statistics and facts effortlessly off the top of his head, self-deprecating, pretty funny, and inspiring. All the characteristics that one would expect from an heir to a political dynasty, and what was particularly encouraging was that this all came in a guy whose main focus was environmental issues and had executed a lot of significant victories in the fight for environmental justice. A good fit for a keynote speaker at a Patagonia all-company meeting.

Since I couldn’t do the typical Friday night drive to some fun place I was having a leisurely Saturday morning at home in Ventura when my phone rang.  It was my pal and official Patagonia spokesman Steve Rogerson.    “Dude, you’re home!  Do you happen to have a spare kayak, and do you have any interest in kayak surfing with Bobby Kennedy?”  Well, my day just changed.  I grabbed my plastic hardshell playboat and my fiberglass surf/squirt boat and headed up the coast a few minutes to the Chouinard’s house.  Out on their deck introductions went around, and in addition to meeting RFK Jr and his lovely wife I also met RFK Jr Junior, who was about 10 or 11 at the time, yet he still gave me a firm handshake and looked up into my eyes and said “Very nice to meet you Mr Diegel!” – clearly another obvious heir to a political dynasty!  Bobby was clearly pretty excited to get into the water, so we got him into the gear and the two of us launched off the Chouinard’s notoriously rocky sea wall  into the sea.  As we slid in, I suddenly realized that I really didn’t know anything about this guy, and just because he wanted to go out kayak surfing and was a global luminary didn’t mean that he wouldn’t flail in the surf!  And I didn’t want to be the guy in the headlines of another Kennedy tragedy.   So I asked “so…do you know what you’re doing here, do you have a roll, have you surfed in the ocean at all?” And his confident reply was “It’s been a while, but I think I’m good.  You want to spot me for a roll to make sure?” and sure enough, he snapped right up, and had a nice strong stroke.  Apparently there’s surf at Cape Cod!!  We paddled out through the break and were shortly bobbing around outside awaiting the next set.  

Of course, I was a bit surprised that Bobby Kennedy was a competent kayaker, but as we chatted I found out that not only had he been kayaking for many years, he and a couple of brothers had done a few first descents in Mexico and Chile in the 70’and also had started and ran a raft company in Mexico in the 80’s.  He had kept up his skills on the Hudson and other easy New England rivers, and in the surf at the family compound on The Cape.  About the time he had gotten this out, a set rolled in and he spun about, paddled hard, and caught the wave easily, and as I kinda started paddling after him just in case I caught glimpses of his paddle blades and helmeted head going back and forth as he sliced down the wave.  It finally broke on him and flipped him over, and he again snapped right back up.  He came back out to me and was absolutely beaming:  “Oh my god!  That was so fun!”  It was a perfect day of medium sized waves, a bit of an offshore breeze that blew off the tops of the breaking waves in silvery strands of watery hair, and – given the somewhat exclusive nature of the Chouinard’s break – there were no surfers out; just me and Bobby K.  Of course, I was interested in talking about what it was like to be a Kennedy, but pretty much all he wanted to talk about was kayaking in rivers and surf, how I liked Patagonia, how I liked SoCal, how was the Kern river because he’d always wanted to paddle that, gem, etc.  Which was fine with me.    We were just a coupla doods out having a fun surf session.  

We’d been out there for quite a while; maybe an hour and a half, which is getting long for a surf session, and I wanted to be respectful of his time and schedule, and said “hey, lemme know when you want to head in; I’m fine with whatever you want.”  He glanced at Chouinard’s deck where his family and other folks were hobnobbing, looked back out to see if there were any sets coming, and said “um, I think I’d like to stay out here a bit longer.”   Okay!  

We sat in silence for a bit, then he said “You know, this is literally the most fun I’ve had in years.”  Wow, really?  You’re from one of the most vaunted families in the world, undoubtedly with pretty much unlimited resources, and can theoretically do whatever you want, and we are out here simply doing a little kayak surfing and it’s the most fun you’ve had in years?  I didn’t say this of course, but he went on “I’ve got so many responsibilities, so many people to answer to, and so many commitments that I simply can’t do that much for myself.”  An odd thing for a former heroin addict to say, but I got it; someone with a deep commitment to public service, a vast network of hangers-onners who all want a piece of you, an iconic family that no doubt pressures you to be The Best all the time, and add in a dose of old fashioned Catholic guilt, and you get a complicated life.  As we bobbed around together waiting for waves, I realized not only how thankful I was for having a pretty simple life that allowed for simple pleasures, but here was a Kennedy – a Kennedy! – who kinda yearned for my very humble  lifestyle.  

When we finally – reluctantly – paddled in to the beach and walked back up to the house, he yet again thanked me profusely for enabling such a fantastic afternoon, and when it became clear that my usefulness to the party was finished, I took the cue,  shook hands, and headed home.

In the ensuing years I had not really paid much attention to what Bobby Kennedy was doing, but as Covid reared its ugly head he resurfaced in the news as an avowed anti-vaxxer, which surprised me; I knew that vaccinations – and masking – had become a bit of a partisan issue, but that the pre-Covid anti-vax movement (for flu, etc) had a strong progressive faction in it, and Bobby Kennedy had a part in that too, arguing that vaccinations were linked to autism.   His fervor increased as the concept of vaccinations became a global issue – and he has embraced other well-known  – and whackadoodle – conspiracy theories  – which endeared him to a swath of (mostly Republican) folks who were probably quite surprised that they liked a Kennedy, and conversely members of his own family excoriated him for his statements.  

Ultimately his frustration with the whole vaccination deal seemed to spill over into many other aspects of Democratic leadership and policy and he decided that it was time to do something bigger about it, like run for president.  And he could actually shake things up; I am not sure how a Democratic primary goes when the incumbent is running again (Edward Kennedy challenged Carter in 1980), but RFK jr has gained a lot of respect from Republicans, many of whom may want someone not as egotistical as Trump nor as mean spirited as DeSantis, and of course the Kennedy name recognition – even after lo these many years – still resonates among voters.  

While I’m glad that Bobby is doing well (in another of the many tragic Kennedy episodes, his wife killed herself a few years after I met her) and I like his commitment to environmental issues and fitness (this is worth a watch!) I think I’m with the many Dems who kinda feel like a younger, more progressive Kennedy-like figure is a great alternative to an octogenarian president, but he’s inexplicably become too much of a kook to actually vote for.  But I’d love to paddle with him again sometime!  

Here’s a fascinating story/interview/op-ed in the New Yorker about Robert F Kennedy that’s worthy:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *