Fishing with the Kennedys

Casting a rod at the compound?
By JACK BURLINGAME  |  July 26, 2010

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This story was originally published in the July 19, 1991, issue of the Boston Phoenix.

The key that unlocks private beaches may be found in any sporting-goods store. According to the Colonial Ordinance of 1641-1647, private beaches in Massachusetts are open to the public for fishing, fowling, and navigation.

I decided to pack up my fishing rod and put this arcane statute to the test. My mission: to stalk the most celebrated private beach in Massachusetts – the Kennedy compound, in Hyannisport. I considered the task with apprehension. After all, the place undoubtedly crawled with Secret Service agents. Would I be shot on sight?

I reassured myself. I would be breaking no law; my fishing pole was a passport giving me full legal rights. The Kennedys, as a family of legislators, surely would understand and respect this.

My first stop was the Hyannis Chamber of Commerce. With feigned nonchalance, I asked the attendant to identify the Kennedy compound on my map. She responded casually, as if she were asked this question dozens of times a day.

I exited clutching my freshly marked map, my route outlined. My beachhead was Sea Street – a town beach with resident-only parking. Following the coastline west, I would encounter the Hyannisport Yacht Club, with its private pier and beach, then Hyannisport Breakwater, and, beyond, my target desination.

I inventoried my gear: sunglasses, map, notebook, camera, fishing pole. I embarked at dead low tide in order to have full use of the intertidal zone. My accessory and I synchronized watches; if I didn't reappear at the scheduled time, she was to seek me out, bail money in hand, at the Barnstable Police Station.

We drove through the fashionable Hyannisport neighborhood and pulled up at the entrance to the Sea Street Beach. A guard sat checking beach stickers. I grabbed my gear and jumped out; my accomplice drove off.

Surverying the beach, I found the scene routine: bathers, sunners, assorted recreationalists. To my right, pier and beach. Numerous well-to-dos sauntered down the boardwalk to be taxied to their yachts.

I paused to consider my strategy. Should I now assemble my role for increased legitimacy? A glaring gap in my research became evident: does the Colonial Ordinance allow me to walk to my fishing spot, pole in hand, or do I have to fish my way over? Logistics determined my course: there was no way to skirt the yacht-club pier while playing a line in the water. I left my rod disassembled. The pier began at a small building above the water's reach, and moved down through the intertidal zone and out about 40 feet into the water. "An unlawful obstruction of my right to free passage," I though, practicing my legalese. I ducked under the pier and out the other side.

The yacht-club beach was deserted. I stepped toward the breakwater, at the opposite side of the beach, an elongated structure jutting hundreds out feet into the water; at its far end stood a group of people, barely discernable. Suddenly, a man ran down from the main building. I stiffened in anticipation. He headed straight toward me and, without hesitation, ran past and into the water. He dove under. I relaxed and continued walking.

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