Standing Tall

Even after a tragic accident, a Floridian sailor keeps the sailing dream alive.

paralympic sailing
Neil Harvey steers as Paralympic medalist Brad Kendell trims the main.Herb McCormick

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to sail with some remarkable sailors. However, until last March, during the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, I’d never sailed with somebody I’d truly call inspirational. But then I got the chance to race aboard a Dufour 455 in the bareboat-charter class with a Floridian sailor named Brad Kendell. A Paralympic silver medalist in the Soling class during the 2016 Games in Brazil, Brad was manning the traveler atop the coach roof, easing or raising it with every puff or lull, never cleating it down. When we tacked, on a windy day of solid 25-knot easterly trades, I could barely scramble across the deck. But even in the wildest moments, Brad remained rock steady on his perch beside the companionway. Which was crazy. Because Brad has no legs.

At the helm that day was Aussie Neil Harvey, a marine-industry stalwart at the Harken hardware company. Back in the day, "Harvs" raced on the legendary Kialoa II maxiyacht with a burly Kiwi called Bruce "Goose" Kendell. Kendell became Kialoa II 's skipper as it roamed the world, winning races and setting records. Then Kendell moved to Florida to work in commercial development. That's where he and his wife, Patti, raised two kids, Sean and Brad. It was all pretty idyllic until a tragic September day in 2003, when the twin-­engine Piper Navajo that Bruce was piloting crashed in a thunderstorm, killing him and another passenger. Brad, in the back seat, somehow survived, though he was badly burned and his legs were shredded.

“He was 22 and strong as an ox,” said Neil. “That’s how he made it.”

“It’s something we never expected to happen and never thought it would happen to us,” said Brad. “But they say s*** happens. And it did.”

A lesser man might’ve packed it in then and there, but after more than a dozen surgeries, including the amputation of both legs, Brad was back on the water soon after being released from the hospital. He’d sailed a bit as a kid in Optis but soon gravitated toward surfing and fishing. After the accident, though, he was invited to join a local crew training for the Paralympic sailing competition. That campaign faltered, but a few years later he teamed up with skipper Rick Doerr, who was paralyzed from the waist down, and Hugh Freund, a single-leg amputee. They competed in the 23-foot Sonar class, and in 2016 had an unforgettable year, winning the Para World Sailing Championships in the Netherlands and then scoring the silver medal in Rio de Janeiro.

“It was awesome,” said Brad. “We worked really hard for it. It was our time.”

For the Heineken event — it was Brad’s first regatta in the Caribbean, and race organizers said he was the first Paralympian to compete there in the series’ 37-year history — the crew included contractor Mike Cannon, whom Bruce Kendall once worked for, and Al Gooch, an experienced ocean racer who’s sailed with Neil since 1979. The trio has been cleaning up in bareboat classes in Caribbean regattas for years, always adding some young blood and fresh faces to its team. Clearly, Brad fit right in.

“Neil said I definitely reminded him of Dad, so it was a great honor,” Brad said. “It was really enjoyable to sail with pretty much family.”

In his travels, Brad has encountered plenty of other folks with fond memories of his father. "It's fantastic to be able to travel all over the world to hear about your dad in terms of Kialoa II. The sailing world is a good world."

Back home, about six years ago, Brad launched the Never Say Never Pirate Camp (www.neversayneverfoundation.org) out of the Clearwater Sailing Center. “I do it every year,” he said. “We started out with 16 kids and had 60 last year, all with some kind of disability. We get them out on the water, get them sailing and do a bunch of other activities on land. We show them that life carries on and they can enjoy it.”

After the racing in St. Maarten, Brad was here, there and everywhere, off the transom for a quick dip, then up on the foredeck helping with mooring lines. He’s a powerful dude with tremendous upper-body strength. Frankly, he made me feel a bit wimpy.

Going forward, Brad is looking to spend more time with his own family, including his 6-year-old daughter, Piper. “And plenty of fishing,” he said.

As we finished our conversation after the racing, I told Brad that somewhere his dad would be gazing down with a smile. “There was always a little bit of me doing this for him,” he said. “I think I made him proud, no doubt about it.” Truer words were never spoken. No doubt about it.

Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.