White House on the Water
On November 4, we head to the polls with a most important aim: to elect the 44th President of the United States. And while our new commander in chief will bring much to the position that is decidedly his own--fresh policies, different views, and a new administration--he will also step into a role that’s steeped in tradition. Our next president will walk the same White House hallways that Adams and Cleveland once paced, host meetings at Camp David like Nixon and Carter before him, and fly in the same Boeing 747 as Bush and Clinton. These executive amenities are not mere buildings and modes of transportation, they are the lasting and powerful symbols of the presidency, passed down from one head of state to the next. Chief among them is the USS Sequoia, the one-time presidential yacht that has served more presidents than any other.
Sequoia is not the sole presidential yacht. The USS Despatch, a 174-foot wooden steamer, is generally considered to have been the original. Her maiden "presidential voyage" took place on the Potomac in 1880 with Rutherford B. Hayes onboard. Later she carried presidents Garfield, Cleveland, and Harrison. Another famous presidential vessel, the USS Mayflower, was a Scottish-built, 275-footer commissioned in 1898 for use by the U.S. Navy. In July of 1905, she was recommissioned as the official presidential yacht and carried Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, and Coolidge.
In 1933, Sequoia was named the presidential vessel by Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, in one of his final acts as President. First owned by the wealthy Cadwalader family (whose 407-foot Savarona III was long the world’s largest privately owned yacht), Sequoia was sold to Texas oil tycoon William F. Dunning in 1928. Three years later, the U.S. Department of Commerce bought her with the aim of using her as a decoy boat to help catch rumrunners working the Mississippi during prohibition. However, she also caught the eye of Hoover, an enthusiastic angler who enjoyed spending time at sea. After he decided to decommission Mayflower as the presidential yacht in 1929--taking care to publicly deem her too ostentatious given that the country was in the throes of the Great Depression--Hoover often chartered Sequoia for his personal use. Then, in 1933, he officially designated her the presidential boat. She remained as such off and on for some 40 years, until she was sold under Jimmy Carter in 1977.
Sequoia, designed by Johan Trumpy and built by the Mathis Yacht Building Company in 1925, was one of the last Trumpy yachts with a modified transom design. She was updated many times. For example, her original propulsion system, a pair of four-cylinder Winston gasoline engines, was replaced, as were details like her small doorknobs, which were changed out for larger ones. But Sequoia’s most enduring and distinctive features are real Trumpy signatures. They include a mahogany hull and extensive brightwork, particularly in the four staterooms.
Several presidents added design elements to the yacht during their respective tenures, resulting in an interior and layout that was ever-evolving. FDR had an elevator installed, which allowed him to move between her decks with ease, in spite of the fact that he was wheelchair-bound. Truman asked that a poker table and custom piano be installed. Not to be outdone, Lyndon Johnson commissioned a slew of changes: He ordered FDR’s elevator turned into a wet bar and had the shower floor lowered three inches because at six foot, three inches, he was too tall for it.
Perhaps the most startling alteration was added by Richard Nixon, who during his time in office used Sequoia a whopping 88 times. There are reports that during the Watergate scandal, a paranoid Nixon became convinced the Trumpy was bugged and ordered the installation of an electronic shield, which required that small pinholes be drilled six inches apart throughout the yacht’s entire railing. According to Sequoia’s current owners, those holes are still visible today.
During her many years as the presidential yacht, Sequoia served as the backdrop to countless landmark events, both public and private. It is reported that in 1945, President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima while he was onboard. And at 46, JFK--oft considered the crew’s favorite president--enjoyed his final birthday onboard. Nixon not only used the yacht during negotiations with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, he also informed his family that he intended to resign while cruising Sequoia down the Potomac.
In spite of this rich history, not all of the presidents who had access to her used Sequoia with the regularity of Hoover, Kennedy, and Nixon. Truman often opted to use the significantly larger USS Williamsburg (243 feet) and actually made her the presidential yacht for a short time. Land-loving presidents Eisenhower and Ford rarely used her, and though he did spend time aboard, FDR preferred using the USS Potomac after his inauguration because the 165-footer--built in 1935--made him feel more secure. Given his reliance on a wheelchair, he feared being trapped in a fire, something he considered less likely onboard an all-steel vessel. After FDR’s death, the Potomac had several owners, including--for a short period of time--Elvis Presley. Today, she’s been fully restored and is maintained by the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Potomac.
Sequoia’s government ownership came to an end in 1977 when Carter auctioned her off. Following in the footsteps of Hoover, he too used Sequoia as a political tool: Her sale was meant to signal the end of what he deemed the "Imperial Presidency." She was purchased by a Rhode Island resident for $286,000, then changed hands several times in the span of just a few years.
In 1981 the Presidential Yacht Trust (PYT), a non-profit organization, bought Sequoia and set about overseeing a massive rebuild at the Norfolk Ship and Drydock. The project involved some 250 workers and included everything from a complete electrical overhaul to a total reimagining of her interior design. The PYT hoped to take the newly restored vessel on a nationwide tour, then donate her as a gift to the U.S. government under President Ronald Reagan--a plan that was never realized. Sequoia’s restoration reportedly left the PYT with significant debt so, in spite of the fact that she was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, she was eventually seized by the Norfolk yard where the work had taken place. Under its ownership, Sequoia spent nearly ten years sitting under cover. Then, in November 2000, Washington lawyer Gary Silversmith bought her for just under $2 million.
Today Silversmith, a self-proclaimed history buff, serves as the President of the Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group, a private company that maintains Sequoia and makes her available for charter. She has been used as the site of elite weddings and political fundraisers and was featured on a recent season of ABC’s popular television show, The Bachelor. And while she is no longer the official presidential yacht (there isn’t one these days), both the president and vice president still use her for vacations and meetings. In fact, prospective clients are warned that their charter requests must first be vetted against the schedule of the commander in chief.
Whether or not the new President of the United States spends a lot of time onboard Sequoia remains to be seen. Certainly, given the security concerns of our modern times, it is unlikely that he or future presidents will casually cruise down the Potomac as Hoover and Kennedy once did. Regardless, Sequoia has a history that is deeply tied to our history, having served as the site of so many presidential occasions. She remains an enduring symbol of our nation’s highest political office.
This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.