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Commanders in chief: a yachting history

Presidents have relaxed, had surgery and made decisions on the fate of our country while on the water

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea,” said President John F. Kennedy in a speech delivered in September 1962 at the America’s Cup races in Newport, R.I. “And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”IN DEPTH

John F. Kennedy was so passionate about sailing, he was known to draw pictures of his beloved Crosby-built Wianno Senior, Victura, during meetings.

“It’s true,” says Ann Scanlon, spokeswoman for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. “His notes during the Cuban missile crisis have doodles of his sailboat. His mind was never that far from the sea.”

JFK certainly wasn’t the only leader to have a passion or reverence for the sea. Through the years, the presidency and the nautical way of life have been intertwined, with official events and vacations alike being held at sea. A whiff of salt air and the sound of water against a hull can offer a respite from the rigors of the office. And in the days before air conditioning, a president could seek relief from Washington’s summer heat on the water.

President George W. Bush, who inherited his father’s love of the water, spent much of a summer break this year plying the waters near Kennebunkport, Maine, aboard his father’s 31-foot Fountain. An avid angler, the president keeps several boats in Texas, and last spring spent a day fishing on his ranch with Mercury Pro angler and television host Roland Martin.

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic contender for the presidency, also loves the sea and spent part of his vacation this year boating in his stepson’s 32-foot Contender off Nantucket, Mass. Senior advisor Michael Mann says after several days on the road, the Massachusetts senator is “very much looking to find an ocean.”

As a child, Kerry sailed with his father, Richard, off Massachusetts. In fact, Kerry’s father made him sail blindfolded at times so he could hone his skills, according to Mann. Kerry’s love for sailing eventually led him to enlist in the Navy, Mann says.

Kerry, who also enjoys kite-surfing, owns a Little Harbor WhisperJet in the 40-foot range. The boat is named for one of the senator’s favorite movies, the 1952 French swashbuckling adventure, “Scaramouche.”

A consummate sailor, Franklin D. Roosevelt logged thousands of miles at sea. Though criticized for his extended voyages, FDR said the time on the water helped his decision-making, according to biographer Robert Cross in the book, “Sailor in the White House” (Naval Institute Press, October 2003, $28.95). Some credit at least part of his success as a world leader to his sailing skills and ability to adjust to rapidly changing conditions on the water.

“That’s the fun of sailing,” Roosevelt once said. “If you’re headed for somewhere and the wind changes, you just change your mind and go somewhere else.”

Yachts have been linked to presidential downfall, as well. President Richard Nixon gathered his family and close friends on the 104-foot Trumpy-designed Sequoia in the days before he announced his resignation in 1974 in the fallout of the Watergate scandal. The yacht was used by eight presidents from Hoover to Ford before being auctioned off by Jimmy Carter.

Another scandal was launched on the water when photos of presidential hopeful Gary Hart aboard the private yacht Monkey Business surfaced, with girlfriend Donna Rice on his lap. Hart was forced to quit his 1988 campaign soon after the photos were revealed.

The Hart affair aside, a boat can offer the president some privacy since the press generally follows in a separate vessel. Before he was president, FDR enjoyed cocktails at sea during Prohibition. Seeking to avoid publicity, Grover Cleveland in July 1893 took an excursion on a private yacht to have a cancerous tumor removed from his jaw. The operation was performed as the yacht steamed along Long Island Sound to Cleveland’s summer home in Massachusetts. A second operation was performed aboard the yacht, as well. Despite the efforts to keep the president’s condition a secret during the financial crisis known as the panic of 1893, the story broke in the Philadelphia Press that August.

A yacht is an ideal setting for meeting with important guests, whether entertaining or hosting peace talks. Both Kennedy and Nixon were said to have met with Russian leaders aboard Sequoia during Cold War negotiations, and the 1905 Russo-Japanese peace talks were held aboard the yacht Mayflower. Winston Churchill, the Queen of England and Japanese Emperor Hirohito are among the many who were entertained aboard presidential yachts.

“Yachts were a prop for power,” says Jack Green, a spokesman for The Navy Museum in Washington.

Before President Jimmy Carter ended the practice, our commanders in chief had presidential yachts at their disposal — big, luxurious vessels that served as official ships “The president would show up at events with an air of authority,” says Kim Nielsen, director of The Navy Museum and a sailor. It was especially important during the Gilded Age, Nielsen explains. Tycoons like the Vanderbilts and Astors had large, impressive yachts. To be accepted as a peer, the president needed a large yacht, as well.

Presidential yachts would be commanded and crewed by the Navy’s best, says Nielsen. Dinners aboard were sumptuous affairs by the nation’s finest chefs. Even cabin stewards and other personnel were the best that the nation could offer, according to Nielsen.

The first presidential yacht was Despatch, a 174- foot wooden steamer. She made her first cruise as a presidential yacht in 1880 on the Potomac River with President Rutherford B. Hayes on board. She also would be used by Presidents James Garfield, Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. The Despatch sank during a storm Oct. 10, 1891, while on her way to Washington via Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac.

Next was the USS Dolphin, a 256-foot cruiser built in 1884. She frequently transported the president, the secretary and assistant secretary of the Navy, the admiral of the Navy, and various other dignitaries. She carried President William McKinley to the ceremonies at Grant’s Tomb April 23, 1897.

Theodore Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy commandeered yachts to serve in the war. The 123-foot USS Sylph was acquired during the Spanish- American war. Roosevelt returned most of the vessels but kept some for naval use, including Sylph. President McKinley was the first to cruise aboard Sylph. Roosevelt, who became president after McKinley was assassinated, made frequent voyages to his summer home on Long Island, N.Y.

Growing up in Oyster Bay, Roosevelt spent his youthful summers sailing. His father didn’t sail because it was not a “gentleman’s” activity, according to Dr. John Gable, executive director of the Teddy Roosevelt Association. He stopped sailing while in his 20s and instead took up rowing, an activity he continued throughout much of his life, to keep fit as well as to take a break from his duties. But he enjoyed many excursions aboard the presidential yachts Dolphin, Sylph and Mayflower.

Mayflower, built as a private yacht for noted banker and real estate developer Ogden Goulet, also was acquired by the Navy during the Spanish-American war and later served as a presidential yacht. The 144-footer was used for 29 years by Presidents Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The yacht is perhaps best known for hosting the aforementioned historic Russo-Japanese peace conference in 1905. Nielsen says Teddy Roosevelt gathered Japanese and Russian leaders aboard Mayflower and told them to stay there until an agreement was reached.

President Herbert Hoover, who campaigned on an austerity platform, maintained that the expenses of running Mayflower were unnecessary and decommissioned her in 1929.

“I have considered that this expenditure and the use of the men on the Mayflower is no longer warranted because it will save that much new recruiting and that much new expenditure involved in the new equipment,” Hoover said in a news conference. “Therefore, I have concluded to do without that boat.”

Mayflower was sold as a private yacht but was taken by the Coast Guard during World War II for use as a patrol vessel. Postwar she was sold and secretly outfitted to carry refugees from Europe to Palestine. Her ultimate fate is unknown.

A year or so later another government-owned boat caught Hoover’s eye. Sequoia was acquired by the Department of Commerce as a decoy to trap rumrunners. Hoover, an avid angler, borrowed the vessel for vacations along the Potomac River and eventually commissioned her as an official presidential yacht in 1933.

In addition to sailing his own schooners and other small sailboats, FDR took frequent excursions aboard Sequoia. With its mahogany hull, ample brightwork, signature scroll and host of amenities, Sequoia was considered by some the Rolls Royce of American yachts.

Other commanders in chief to use Sequoia included Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, JFK and Gerald Ford. Sequoia is still around today and is offered for charter in the Washington area.

In 1945 Harry S. Truman thought Sequoia was too small and commandeered the 243-foot Williamsburg, according to Nielsen. Built in 1930 as Aras, she was acquired as a gunboat in 1941 and served as a command/ headquarters and VIP ship during World War II.

“As a Missourian with humble means, Truman wasn’t much of a yachtsman,” says Randy Sowell, archivist for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. “He wasn’t addicted to the sea, but he did enjoy going on the Williamsburg.”

Sowell says Truman wrote about one unpleasant trip to Bermuda in 1946, when he and several others suffered seasickness in rough conditions. After the voyage, Truman stayed closer to shore, either cruising the Potomac or occasionally vacationing in Key West, Fla.

Truman, who enjoyed high-stakes poker games aboard Williamsburg, entertained many dignitaries, as well, including Churchill, says Sowell.

President Dwight Eisenhower decommissioned the Williamsburg in 1953. She was the last official presidential yacht, although U.S. heads of state continued to use vessels, particularly Sequoia, for vacations and important meetings for two decades, says Green.

Williamsburg served the National Science Foundation until damaged in 1968. There have been unsuccessful campaigns to raise funds to restore the yacht, now a deteriorating hulk in La Spezia, Italy. (The yacht is available for $150,000 and anyone interested can contact Nielsen at The Navy Museum at (202) 433-4882.)

Another presidential vessel still in existence is the Potomac. Built as the Coast Guard patrol boat Electra in 1934, she was taken over by the Navy as a presidential yacht in 1935 and was used until the Williamsburg was available. She was decommissioned in 1945, and served the state of Maryland as a fisheries vessel.

The Potomac later was a floating museum dedicated to FDR, and was purchased by Elvis Presley in 1964. Elvis donated her to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. A series of owners followed, and in 1980 the yacht was seized as a suspected drug runner. She was transported to the Port of Oakland, Calif., and is now owned by the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht Potomac. She has been completely restored and also is available for charter.

While Eisenhower didn’t often use yachts, his successor JFK revived the tradition. Kennedy’s love of the sea was well known, sparked by a childhood visit to the USS Constitution in Charlestown, Mass., according to historians. As a boy, he sailed the waters around the family compound on Cape Cod. At the age of 15 his parents gave him a 26-foot wooden Wianno Senior built at the Crosby Yard in Osterville, Mass., and Kennedy soon was winning races. He sailed Victura throughout his lifetime and even taught his wife, Jacqueline, to sail her. The Wianno is on display at the JFK library.

“Victura was among the president’s most prized possessions,” Dave Powers, longtime Kennedy aide and former curator of the JFK Library, wrote in a note posted on the library’s Web site. “If the president wasn’t sailing on Victura, he was thinking about it, as evidenced by his many doodles of the sailboat.

While president, Kennedy frequently entertained dignitaries and guests aboard Sequoia. In fact, his 46th birthday party was held aboard the yacht.

One day while walking along the docks at the Washington Navy Yard, Kennedy fell in love with a 92-foot Navy yacht alongside Sequoia. Originally known as Lenore, the yacht was built in 1931 at the Defoe Shipyard in Michigan. The yacht was first used by President Eisenhower. Kennedy renamed her Honey Fitz in honor of his maternal grandfather and former mayor of Boston. He used Honey Fitz for excursions and entertaining. She was restored in October 2002 and is now in Palm Beach, Fla.

When elected in 1977, President Carter stripped excesses from the White House, and Sequoia was auctioned off. Carter hosted important summits at Camp David, rather than at sea.

“Camp David is somewhat of a land-locked presidential yacht,” says Nielsen. That is why the compound is staffed by the Navy, he says. Furniture from some of the yachts furnishes Camp David.

During the Reagan administration, a group of investors lobbied to renew the practice of presidential yachts. They raised enough money to refurbish Sequoia, but the administration would only accept the gift if there were an ample endowment to offset operating costs. After the administration was criticized for Nancy Reagan’s purchase of new china for the White House, Nielsen says there was no more talk about yachts.Sequoia