by Elaine Lembo
ON A GRAY, DANK DAY IN EARLY DECEMBER, THE office of Mike Keyworth at Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington is an inviting retreat. Outside, it’s all hustle and hurry. Power and sailboats are being winterized, the shrink wrap’s coming on, the lift that moves them around is beeping its warning to stay clear.
But inside, there’s the look and feel of a comfortable den. Papers are piled on the desk. Books line low shelves. On the walls are mounted frames from a grand prix racing career; they joust for space with plaques honoring civic and environmental achievements.
There’s no hint here that somebody’s about to depart for a new chapter in life. But that’s exactly what is happening, as Mike Keyworth is weeks away from retiring after a three-decade-long career in the marina industry. It’s an odyssey that saw the Brewer vice president and general manager trailblazing with colleagues on behalf of the health of Rhode Island waters in general and Narragansett Bay in particular and advocating for the livelihoods of the people who work in the marine trades.
At the moment, though, he’d rather pull old passports out of his desk drawer and flip through the years with each turn of the page. There are visas from Cuba, China, and Japan. The memories from those landfalls are interspersed with a recollection of beautiful sailboats and big-time races—the Fastnet, Sydney-Hobart, Newport to Bermuda, Middle Sea Race, the Clipper Cup, the Swan Cup Sardinia, to name but a few.
Indeed, the decade-long international sailing and racing career Keyworth and his wife, Nancy, embarked upon in the ’70s—much of it as crew aboard the 81- foot, record-setting maxi boat Nirvana—was a spectacular, rare adventure.
“This incredible career of ours was such a cool deal because it really grew in ways we couldn’t have predicted,” he says.
The same could be said about the next occupation he undertook after washing ashore in New England. Soon after he was hired at Brewer Yacht Yards in the mid-’80s, Keyworth encountered new types of challenges, all unanticipated, and of the environmental and political sort.
As he recalls, back then Rhode Island marinas and boatyards were perceived as a necessary evil. The waters under the slips at Cove Haven situated a half-mile from the Providence River channel, were a mudflat; dredging was unheard of. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) catered mainly to the agenda of boat dealers.
Luxury sales tax on boats? Pumpouts? Shrink wrap recycling? Clean marinas? Abandoned vessels? Climate change? Sea level rise? These matters were not making headlines yet, but eventually, they would.
A transfer from Brewer’s Pilot’s Point Marina in Westbrook, Connecticut, to Cove Haven in 1987 got Keyworth up to speed with the issues in an abrupt way, and in 1988, he joined RIMTA.
“As I got more involved in RIMTA, I brought on other people in the marina and boatyard business,” he says. “We were besieged from every angle: We were considered dirty; indifferent at best to the environment; users and abusers of the resource.”
“And I knew that wasn’t the case,” he says. “My fellow marina operators knew that their livelihood depended on clean water and the ability to use that clean water. The dredging issue was one of the first ones I got involved in because it was imperative to survive here at Cove Haven.”
The effort to gain funds for dredging in the federal waters of the Providence Channel proved to be an instructive one for Keyworth; the lessons he took from it would serve him well in the years ahead.
“I believed that it was a simple problem,” he says. “You dug the stuff from one place and you put it another place, but that’s not the way it works. I learned about the stakeholder process and how you have to engage and embrace and collaborate; otherwise, you’ll never succeed.”
The spirit of cooperation that went into establishing the Rhode Island Dredge Task Force would be the same type of effort needed in 1991 when stakeholders successfully fought for an exemption from a federally imposed luxury tax of 10 percent on boats valued at more than $100,000. Keyworth, by then RIMTA president and chairman of the legislative committee, worked with colleague Ken Kubic to pursue repeal of the law.
“We were approached by local builders who felt it would put them out of business,” he says. “We pushed for relief by introducing state legislation that would exempt boats from sales or use tax. It passed in 1991, without a dissenting vote. In the end, it helped create and save thousands of jobs.”
And it gave Keyworth and RIMTA a reputation for taking on broader issues. “I became known as the guy you call,” he says. “There was the sales tax, and all sorts of other issues surfaced. There was so much going on at the time: aquaculture projects, making Rhode Island a no-discharge state. Everyone and everything was in play then. The Coastal Resources Management Council and the Department of Environmental Management were partners. All of us were working together to make things better.”
Keyworth also developed a relationship with Rhode Island Sea Grant in the early 1990s by helping create a guide of best management practices for marinas. “They wanted projects that benefitted the entire ecosystem,” he says. “I felt it was important to generate something that benefitted marinas.”
More recently, Keyworth has worked with Sea Grant to create a toolkit to help marine facilities assess risk from sea level rise and climate-change-induced storm events. “I’m certainly not a visionary but I get the picture,” he says. “You’ve got to scare the crap out of these people, I told them. They don’t realize what they’re in for. Using the tool, you get a bird’s eye view of your facility; it shows seawater inundation in a 5-, 10-, 50-, and 100-year storm. It’s scary.”
Keyworth has also helped develop a certification training program for Brewer employees in cooperation with the American Boat and Yacht Council’s Ed Sherman. As chairman of the group Clean Bays, he’s advocated for a dollar fee tacked on to state boat registration to go into funding for shoreline maintenance, including removing abandoned vessels from the water.
“We have a responsibility to our children and our children’s children to leave the environment better than we found it because those before us didn’t do a good job of managing it,” he says. “Proactive conservation is what I’m talking about; our marshes are equally important as our tributaries, bays, and oceans. It’s all tied together.”
Despite the problems and the setbacks, Keyworth is optimistic. Today, RIMTA is in great shape, he says, and represents all members of the marine trades equally. The bay is much cleaner. Citizens in the Ocean State are far more aware of environmental priorities. Even Cove Haven has thrived, with double the slips it once had. “I believe there’s a solution to every problem,” he says. “You just have to work at it hard enough to figure out what it is.”
For now, though, it’s time for Keyworth to take a break from the many boards and committees and accept honor for his efforts. He’s the recipient of RIMTA’S first Rising Tide Award for making contributions to the Rhode Island marine trades. He’s also the 1995 recipient of the Alfred L. Hawkes Award, the highest environmental award in the Rhode Island, and the 1996 recipient of the Clean Marina Award by the EPA.
It’s also time to focus on going sailing again. In December, Chasseur, his Swan 44, awaited him in St. Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands. He and Nancy planned to cruise the Caribbean over winter, and in May, move the boat to Bermuda so he could feed his racing addiction, flying home to do the Newport-Bermuda Race aboard Verissimo, an Alden 63. Then he’ll rejoin Chasseur and head for the Azores, England, Scotland, and Ireland, “and I’m not sure after that,” he says.
One thing is certain: Even though Keyworth is from the Chesapeake, he’ll return to New England to retire.
“I sailed in and out of Newport when I was operating boats,” he says. “I always felt like I was coming home. Nancy and I have bought a house in Newport, in the Point section. As I say to native Rhode Islanders, ‘You didn’t have a choice. I had a choice, and I choose to live here.’”