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Presidential Yacht Sequoia in Search of a Home

The Presidential Yacht Sequoia served eight U.S. presidents from Hoover to Ford. Once a familiar Washington sight as it trundled up and down the Potomac River at the pleasure of the nation’s chief executive, the wooden boat is now in private hands and available for commercial charter. But moves are afoot to return the historic vessel to the American people.


Photograph by Mark Christmas/NGS

Its unassuming appearance belies its storied past; long decades when it served as a river home for America’s presidents.

Sequoia, a 104-foot (32-meter) classic wooden yacht, has hosted many of the 20th century’s towering figures.

The yacht served eight presidents from Hoover to Ford before being auctioned off by Jimmy Carter. Now there are moves afoot to buy it from its private owners so that the boat may be returned to public service.

Sequoia began its presidential service during the Great Depression, before airconditioning, when the commander in chief took to the water for relief from the oppressive political and summer heat of Washington.

Sequoia IPIX
See an IPIX of the Sequoia’s interior
Photograph by Mark Christmas/NGS
But it quickly became a place for solitude and deep thinking in times of trouble.

Johnson retreated to the boat to assess the impact of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nixon is said to have searched his soul while seated on the boat’s stern deck, concluding that he had no option but to resign the presidency after losing his way during the Watergate scandal; crowds of reporters hung over the Potomac bridges to watch the Sequoia pass below, sensing the impending death of the beleaguered administration.

Sequoia Chief of Protocol Bill Codus in the yacht’s diningroom.
Photograph by Mark Christmas/NGS
The Sequoia was also a powerful tool in furthering America’s international relations; world leaders such as Churchill, Brezhnev, and Emperor Hirohito were among the many who enjoyed a sundowner as the yacht slid past the tangled, verdant banks of the Potomac.

Auctioned Off by Carter

President Carter’s election in 1976 signaled, for a while, the end of the “Imperial Presidency.” One of his first actions to strip the pomp and waste from the White House was to auction off the Sequoia. A private buyer purchased the boat for U.S. $270,000.

Changing hands several times, the Sequoia ended up in the hands of a group of investors who proposed to refurbish the yacht and donate it back to the government. President Reagan, in office, said his administration would accept the gift—provided that it came with an endowment to offset its operating expenses.

The Sequoia was sent to a Norfolk shipyard for restoration. The work was done in part, but when the financial backers of the project defaulted on payment, work was suspended and the boat was mothballed for years.

The wet bar on board the boat was originally an elevator installed to hoist President Roosevelt between decks. President Johnson had it converted into a facility to dispense cocktails.
Photograph by Mark Christmas/NGS
In November 2000 Washington lawyer and presidential memorabilia collector Gary Silversmith bought the Sequoia for U.S. $1.9 million and moved it back to the nation’s capital, where it is now available to the public for charter at U.S. $10,000 a cruise.

The Sequoia Presidential Yacht Foundation has been formed with a view to raising donations to buy the yacht from Silversmith. The idea, according to Foundation Vice President Bill Codus, is to raise at least $5 million for an endowment that would allow for the boat to be fully restored and maintained.

It is the goal of the foundation to continue to make the Sequoia available for public charter as well as a vessel for programs for the Sea Scouts and Sea Cadets, Codus says. “The emphasis is on seamanship skills and discipline and on Sequoia’s history and also of the history of the presidents she served.”

Once the yacht is acquired by the foundation it will be moved in to the U.S. Navy Yard on the Potomac, Codus says. “And once more she will available for the use of the President of the United States as well as members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. Supreme Court, and the cabinet.

“It is our goal to return this national treasure to the American people,” says Codus, who is also “Chief of Protocol” of the Sequoia. “There is too much history here to be lost.”

• Happy hour on board the Sequoia: view a list of presidential favorites.

For more information about the Sequoia visit the Foundation’s website or call 202.872.8228.

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The Sequoia was built in 1925 and used during the Harding administration to enforce Prohibition. Ironically, when it was transferred to presidential service, it became the scene of many booze cruises, including a surprise party for President Kennedy on his last birthday (his 46th), when Dom Perignon champagne was served.

President Hoover acquired the Sequioa as a substitute for a much bigger presidential yacht, thinking that the populace suffering from the effects of the Great Depression would be impressed by his parsimony. But the hungry masses could care less that the president was using a 104-foot (32-meter) boat instead of a 318-foot (97-meter) yacht. They saw the acquisition of the Sequoia as an example of a president who was out of touch with what was going on in America.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wheelchair-bound because of polio, had an elevator installed so he could be hoisted between decks, making the Sequioa one of the first vessels equipped for disabled persons. President Johnson later converted the elevator to a wet bar for serving cocktails.

FDR liked to sit on the back of the Sequoia and fish in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. It is said that he and General Eisenhower planned D-Day while on board. Roosevelt also entertained Winston Churchill on the Sequioa, although the corpulent British Prime Minister is said to have complained that he found the yacht’s deck chairs uncomfortable, even after imbibing his favorite tipple, scotch, and soda.

President Truman is said to have been on the yacht when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Many years later, during the Ford Administration, the emperor and empress of Japan were state guests on the Sequioa.

A long scratch on the dining room table on the yacht is believed to have been made by Truman during a rowdy poker game. Queen Elizabeth II is said to have commented on the mark many years afterwards.

A plaque in the main stateroom states: “According to some Sequioa crew members, John and Jacqueline Kennedy enjoyed this room during weekend trips on the Chesapeake Bay. John Kennedy also reportedly used the room with others.” To this day the door to this room features a special trapdoor Kennedy ordered installed so state documents could be passed back and forth with minimal disturbance to his privacy.

Johnson was so tall that he ordered the ceilings of the yacht be raised three inches (8 cm), while the floor of the shower off the presidential stateroom had to be lowered three inches.

Nixon is known to have cruised on the Sequioa at least 88 times. He conducted Cold War diplomacy with his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev, while on the yacht, succeeding in clinching the first arms control treaty between the two superpowers. Later, Nixon brooded while on board the boat as he reached the decision that the Watergate scandal left him no choice but to resign the presidency.

Gerald Ford, the last of eight presidents to use the Sequioa, chaired cabinet meetings on board the boat.

President Carter is thought never to have set foot on the yacht. Since Ford the only serving president to visit the Sequioa was Clinton, who attended a fundraiser hosted on board. He was observed to have shown particular interest in the many photographs on display of FDR and Kennedy on the yacht.

Congress declared the Sequioa a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

Source: Sequoia Presidential Yacht Foundation.