The presidency used to come with a yacht.
This is one of the early ones, Mayflower, pictured at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York harbor. The 1909 event commemorated Henry Hudson’s first voyage (in 1609) up the river that would bear his name and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first steamboat.
Travel in early America was often easiest by water, and the first chief executives used naval vessels when the need arose. Abraham Lincoln held conferences aboard a steamer named River Queen. Later, the U.S. Navy supplied a trio of more official vessels. Grover Cleveland viewed the 1886 dedication of the Statue of Liberty from the USS Despatch.
By the turn of the 20th century, the presidency had acquired a real yacht. Mayflower was a 273-foot steamer formerly owned by real estate tycoon Ogden Goelet.
Theodore Roosevelt took her out on family cruises on Long Island Sound. (He later used the 165-foot Potomac, a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter.) Other presidents continued the tradition. Calvin Coolidge had church “rigged” during his Sunday morning rides on Potomac.
Decommissioned in 1929, Potomac was replaced by the 104-foot Sequoia, which Herbert Hoover used for fishing. Sequoia enjoyed a long career; Franklin Roosevelt casted a line over the side, and John Kennedy celebrated a birthday on board.
Sometimes yachts were used as tools of diplomacy. Teddy Roosevelt’s peace talks aboard
Mayflower in 1905 ended the Russo-Japanese War (and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize). Franklin Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II on board Potomac. Harry Truman held arms talks with the Soviets on Sequoia, where, later, Richard Nixon conferred with Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev.
It all ended in 1977. President Jimmy Carter, citing the annual bill for upkeep (up to $300,000) ordered the Sequoia sold. The vessel was later used as a private yacht and floating museum and is currently awaiting a much-needed overhaul after a legal dispute kept her out of the water. Potomac is active today, based in
Oakland, California, and offering tours of San Francisco Bay.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue.