Ships of State

If only they could talk, all the Presidents’ yachts would have one heck of a story to tell.

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United States presidents have lots of toys at their disposal, and expensive ones at that: Air Force One, for example, a nice U.S. Marine helicopter, garages full of bulletproof limos and high-end SUVs and probably plenty of stuff we don’t even know about. But they don’t have a yacht, at least not anymore. After almost a century of presidential yachts, Jimmy Carter sold the last one in 1977. But while we had them, presidential ships were an ideal way to impress foreign ambassadors and heads of state. Diplomacy aside, a yacht seems like the perfect place to shake off the stresses of running our complex country while avoiding war with others.

Nine presidential yachts served our chief executives between 1880 and 1977. The White House Historical Association lists them as: Despatch, Dolphin, Sylph, Mayflower, Potomac, Sequoia, Williamsburg, Honey Fitz and Manitou. The U.S.S. Despatch was a 198-foot U.S. Navy steamer that had been used primarily for diplomatic missions. In 1880, she was assigned to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and later to President Grover Cleveland. In October, 1886, Despatch carried Cleveland and his entourage to Bedloe’s Island, now Liberty Island, in New York Harbor for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Five years later, while returning to Washington from New York City, she grounded on Virginia’s Assateague Island in a gale; her crew were saved, but the wreck was sold for salvage.

Nixon hosted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev aboard Sequoia during the 1973 nuclear arms treaty talks.

Nixon hosted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev aboard Sequoia during the 1973 nuclear arms treaty talks.

Between 1893 and 1914, U.S.S. Dolphin, 256 feet long and one of the first Navy ships to be built of steel, served Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley watched the dedication of Grant’s Tomb in New York City from Dolphin’s deck in 1897, and observed a solar eclipse on board in May, 1900. According to some accounts, in August, 1905, she carried the Japanese delegation from Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth and end the Russo-Japanese War.

Or maybe not. By 1905, President Roosevelt had two other presidential yachts. The 273-foot Mayflower, with a crew of eight officers and 166 sailors (including musicians), was built by real estate mogul Ogden Goelet, and sold to the U.S. Navy in 1898. Her dining table sat 30, an ideal venue for delicate negotiating. Roosevelt hosted the Russian and Japanese delegations on board on August 5, 1905. According to Naval History and Heritage Command, “The ship continued to play a prominent role in the negotiations...” Whether the Japanese delegates cruised to Portsmouth aboard Mayflower or Dolphin, or took the train, the result was the same: The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed, the Russo-Japanese War ended and President Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize.

President Roosevelt also had the sleek 123-foot U.S.S. Sylph. McKinley was the first president to use her, but her relatively small size and 15-knot speed made her Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite. Roosevelt and his family cruised frequently aboard Sylph, both around Washington and to Sagamore Hill, his home in Oyster Bay. She was more intimate and better suited to nosing into small harbors and coves than Mayflower.

Mayflower served as presidential yacht until 1929, when it was sold under Hoover for economic reasons.

Mayflower served as presidential yacht until 1929, when it was sold under Hoover for economic reasons.

Time To Go A-courtin’

President William Howard Taft sailed Mayflower along the Maine coast in 1910. His wife Helen wrote, “I know of no other way for [a president] to get short intervals of rest than by ... steaming away out of the reach of crowds.” That is, she added, “If he happens to be a good sailor.”

President Woodrow Wilson became a widower when his wife, Ellen, died in August, 1914. A year later, he used Mayflower to court widow Edith Bolling Galt, taking her on “romantic jaunts” aboard the vessel. The campaign was successful and Mrs. Galt became First Lady Edith Wilson in December, 1915. (Who can resist a yacht?) President and Mrs. Wilson enjoyed spending time aboard Mayflower during World War I, to escape “people and their intolerable excitements and demands.”

Mayflower continued to serve as presidential yacht until 1929, when she was sold on newly inaugurated President Herbert Hoover’s orders, for reasons of economy.

The 256-foot U.S.S. Dolphin.

The 256-foot U.S.S. Dolphin.

Gone Fishin’

President Hoover liked to fish. In 1931, the Department of Commerce bought a 104-foot Trumpy motoryacht, Sequoia, for patrol duty on Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Within a month, Hoover borrowed her for a trip from Washington to Cape Henry, Virginia, escorted by a Navy tug with Secret Service agents on board.

Hoover sent Sequoia to Savannah in the spring of 1932; he and the First Lady, Lou Hoover, joined her there and cruised to Palm Beach, doing a bit of fishing along the way. There was another fishing trip that August on Chesapeake Bay, and a second trip to Savannah at Christmas for some fishing en route to Palm Beach, where the Hoovers planned on a little more fishing. The Hoovers liked Sequoia so much, they put her photo on their 1932 Christmas card.

The handsome, Trumpy-style Sequoia.

The handsome, Trumpy-style Sequoia.

Hoover left office before Sequoia could be named the official presidential yacht; that was left to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in March, 1933. FDR had an elevator installed between the lower and main decks, so he wouldn’t have to struggle on the stairs. President and Mrs. Roosevelt used Sequoia as often as possible for private cruising on the Potomac, the Chesapeake, the Hudson River (FDR’s home was on the river at Hyde Park, New York) and, sometimes, Long Island Sound: FDR’s son John rowed on the Harvard crew team, and the president would send Sequoia to New London, Connecticut, so he could watch the Harvard-Yale race from her deck, then spend the night aboard.

In 1936, Sequoia was replaced by Potomac, a former Coast Guard cutter that was bigger and more seaworthy. Sequoia became a “yacht-of-all-trades” for more than 30 years, used for both government business and pleasure by the Secretary of the Navy and his staff.

The 245-foot Williamsburg.

The 245-foot Williamsburg.

Mind the U-Boats

Potomac was 165 feet long, built of steel and almost brand new. As the presidential yacht in the years leading to World War II, she hosted many world leaders—in June, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain sailed down the Potomac River with the Roosevelts to Mount Vernon; the king was given a 21-gun salute at the Washington Navy Yard. On the trip, Potomac flew both the king’s royal standard and the presidential banner. After touring Mount Vernon and visiting Washington’s tomb, the party returned to the White House—by car. Maybe it was getting late.

In August, 1941, President Roosevelt sailed to Cape Cod aboard Potomac, supposedly on a fishing trip. But he secretly boarded the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta to steam to Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Later, FDR held a press conference back aboard the Potomac, explaining that the threat of U-boats necessitated keeping the meeting top secret. It can cause trouble, he said, “If you make known the exact location on the high seas of the president and the prime minister.”

Unfortunately, to fit her out for the upcoming war, the Navy added so much structure and equipment to Potomac’s upper decks that it affected her stability, making her too tender for offshore cruising. FDR kept her for use in sheltered water, but there was a war going on, and he didn’t have much time for yachting. In 1945, after Harry Truman became president, Potomac was sold and replaced by the 245-foot Williamsburg.

Today, restored and in service on San Francisco Bay, Potomac is the only one of the four surviving presidential yachts you can visit.

USS_Despatch

USS_Despatch

You Can Have My Job

President Harry Truman used Williamsburg for 11 Key West vacations; he slept in his home there while his guests lived aboard the yacht. But his most remarkable trip was the “journey into nowhere” in August, 1946. Feeling the effects of the post-WWII situation, concern over his ailing mother, and compounded by his own health issues, Truman decided to take a working vacation cruise (sounds nice, huh?). He loaded a full contingent of friends, aides, a physician, Secret Service agents and secretaries on board, leaving Washington on August 16. Truman’s plan was to stop at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, then head to Maine.

After leaving Quonset Point, seemingly on a whim, Truman decided to head for Bermuda instead, ordering the Williamsburg’s captain to change course. During the passage, the president felt the effects of mal de mer; he told one of Williamsburg’s officers, “If you can stop this boat from rolling, you can have my job.” Two days later, the ship arrived at the U.S. Naval Base in Bermuda, where Truman enjoyed fishing, touring the island, meeting dignitaries and playing poker. The party stayed about a week, then headed home, arriving back in Washington on September 2.

JFK at the helm of Manitou.

JFK at the helm of Manitou.

The Kennedy Fleet

President Dwight Eisenhower retired Williamsburg but kept her 93-foot tender, Lenore II, as his presidential yacht. Eisenhower renamed her Barbara Anne, after his granddaughter, and enjoyed the yacht both on the Potomac River and in Narragansett Bay. But Eisenhower was more of a golf guy.

President John F. Kennedy kept Barbara Anne, renaming her Honey Fitz after his grandfather, a one-time mayor of Boston. She was one of three presidential yachts in JFK’s stable; the other two were Sequoia, back for a second act, and Manitou, a 62-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl borrowed from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Manitou was fitted out with communications systems that allowed JFK to stay in touch with his office, the White House and even the Kremlin. Her aft stateroom had a bathtub set into the cabin sole. Marilyn Monroe enjoyed bathing here—at least, that’s how the legend goes.

Kennedy used Honey Fitz for personal cruising, while Sequoia was the official presidential yacht. The most fun Sequoia saw during the Kennedy years was on JFK’s final birthday party in May, 1963. It was, according to the Washington Post, a raucous affair, attended by actors David Niven and Peter Lawford, JFK’s brother-in-law, along with the usual Kennedy crowd: his brothers Robert and Edward, his sister Eunice and her husband, Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps. There was a band and a piano player, dancing and drinking, and sometime during the party Edward Kennedy lost at least part of his pants. In other words, it was a successful birthday celebration.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Manitou was returned to the Coast Guard, and was then sold to a private owner; she is currently well-maintained and sailing in the Mediterranean. Honey Fitz was sold in the mid-1970s to her current owner, who has carried out a proper maintenance and repair schedule from day one. Today, Honey Fitz is enjoying healthy old age in Florida.

USS Sylph

USS Sylph

Sequoia’s Last Act (Maybe)

President Johnson sent Sequoia to the Trumpy Yacht Yard in Annapolis to modify her upper decks to hold more guests; her engines were also replaced with modern diesels. The tall Texan president also wanted more headroom in the shower (LBJ was 6-foot-3) and a TV in the presidential stateroom. He removed FDR’s elevator and replaced it with a bar. LBJ would invite members of Congress aboard, and once underway, try to drum up support for his Great Society, a program that included Medicare, urban renewal, support for the arts and the war on poverty. It’s said that Johnson wouldn’t return to the dock until all his guests were convinced.

President Nixon used Sequoia even more than LBJ, and insisted the yacht was always ready to get underway on 20 minutes’ notice. Sometimes he would sail with guests, sometimes alone, or as alone as a president can be—with Secret Service agents and his doctor, and usually his Irish setter.

Nixon often held meetings aboard Sequoia, sometimes to discuss with Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, and other cabinet members the ongoing negotiations to end the Vietnam War, sometimes to talk about U.S.-Soviet relations. One of Nixon’s most important meetings took place in 1973, when Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev came aboard for a cruise along the Potomac. (President Nixon insisted all the brightwork be stripped, sanded and revarnished for the Brezhnev cruise.)

Harry S. Truman often hosted his cabinet aboard Williamsburg.

Harry S. Truman often hosted his cabinet aboard Williamsburg.

On August 4, 1974, President Nixon boarded Sequoia with his friend and advisor Bebe Rebozo to discuss the best course of action to end the Watergate situation. The following evening, on a cruise to Mount Vernon, the president told his family he was going to resign. On August 8, when he left the White House for the last time, Nixon asked the helicopter pilot to make a low-level pass over Sequoia. Crew members on deck saw the ex-president wave goodbye.

When Jimmy Carter became president, one of his first acts was to order the yacht be sold—saving the government about $800,000 a year in 1977 dollars. (That’s about $3.4 million in today’s money.)

Sequoia was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. She has been out of the water at a Deltaville, Virginia, shipyard since late 2012, and is in poor condition. Her current owners hope to move Sequoia to a New England shipyard for a full restoration, then use her for benefits and fundraising. But she’ll have to make the trip on the deck of a barge. Simply launching and keeping her afloat long enough for transfer to the barge is problematic. Whether Sequoia will ever sail again is anyone’s guess. What seems more likely are the days of presidential yachts fading into legend, becoming, for better or worse, a staple of the past. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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