A national landmark worthy of preserving

August 19, 1998|By Capt. Giles M. Kelly

WASHINGTON -- The Sequoia may well be the best known yacht in the United States. She has been called "America's Yacht." She is not very big as yachts go, only l04 feet long, nor very opulent. But she is very special in two ways.

First, she was built in Camden, N.J., in 1925 to the design of John Trumpy, a master designer of fine wooden yachts. She is to boat lovers what an early Cadillac in fine condition would be to car collectors.

Second, she has a proud and unique history. She has served eight presidents, beginning with President Herbert Hoover in 1933 and ending in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter ordered her to be sold at public auction.

Since then the Sequoia has gone from riches to rags to restoration. She has recently regained most of her former elegance. She is back, fully operational, at her traditional home waters, within sight of the nation's Capitol and ready to receive visitors and official guests.

For the present, she is in the safekeeping of a newly formed nonprofit foundation that does not own her, but hopes to find the funds to acquire her and maintain her to a very strict standard, while at the same time sharing her with the American public -- particularly with youngsters who love ships.

The venerable Washington Navy Yard, which begins a yearlong celebration of its bicentennial in October 1999, has given the Sequoia a berth. But she still has to earn her keep, so the foundation allows her to be chartered from time to time for private parties.

It is quite a thrill to cruise the Potomac for a cool cocktail party or for an elegant dinner party in the fashion of past presidents. Sequoia visitors can also stroll through the historic Naval Museum during their trip to the Navy Yard.

The foundation also makes the yacht available free to senior government officials for official entertaining. Like the rest of us, they must occasionally find something special to do with visitors and nothing could be finer than taking foreign guests on a dinner cruise to Mount Vernon and back on the former presidential yacht.

Yet the yacht is not just for the high and mighty. She is regularly opened to the public for free viewing, and has a training program aboard for Sea Scouts and naval cadets.

The Presidential Yacht Sequoia Foundation is seeking funds from the public to buy and preserve the Sequoia. Her present owners, the shipyard that has done well in excess of $2 million of restoration work on her, would like to regain some if not all of that money.

The Presidential Yacht Sequoia Foundation also is seeking to endow the yacht for several more million dollars to pay for maintenance, including regular overhauls.

Thus the question arises, should we, the American public, save the Sequoia? I think yes. But in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit, I was once her skipper, and I love the yacht.

She is not just a luxury or a static museum piece. The Sequoia is officially designated a national historic vessel. She is still operational and available for education, for business, for training and for pleasure. She is certified safe by the U.S. Coast Guard and deserves preservation and celebration.

Her rich history includes playing host to Winston Churchill when he and President Franklin D. Roosevelt drafted the Atlantic Charter and planned war strategy that helped thwart Hitler and buy time for the Allies in the early, dark days of World War II.

It includes the party President Richard Nixon gave for Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in l973; President John F. Kennedy's last birthday party, his 46th, in l963; the cruise of the emperor and empress of Japan to Mount Vernon in l975 and Vice President George Bush's cruise on the Potomac with Deng Xiaoping, the president of China, in l987. Many other historic and poignant events occurred during her 70 years of service, including mini-cruises for participants in the Special Olympics.

dTC She won the admiration of many thousands of Americans who freely visited the Sequoia in the '80s, especially during her 6,000-mile good will tour that took her from Washington to Houston, then up the Mississippi to Chicago and through the Great Lakes and eventually across New York State by way of the Erie Canal to the Hudson River and down the East Coast to return home.

To many of the visitors who saw her on this special trip on America's waterways, stepping aboard was like visiting a holy shrine.

Does the Sequoia deserve public support? Of course she does. She is a special monument that witnessed much of the rich presidential history of our nation during the 20th century. She is a silent witness to our times.

The Presidential Yacht Sequoia Foundation would welcome both individual and corporate gifts to help with the purchase and preservation of this modest yacht that has been called, "Our Ship of State."

Giles Kelly is a retired naval reserve captain who commanded the Sequoia from l983 to l988. He is writing a history of the Sequoia.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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