Restored yacht-for-hire has presidential past


October 04, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The USS Sequoia, the former rum-runner turned presidential yacht that was a floating getaway for chief executives from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter, recently completed needed repairs at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

If you really want to impress family and friends, the historic vessel - on which Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill began planning for D-Day and Richard M. Nixon came to the wrenching conclusion that his presidency was coming to an end - can be chartered for a four-hour cruise.

The price is $10,000, the limit on guests is 50, and if you desire to spend the night aboard the 104-foot-long vessel, be prepared to shell out extra cash. It can be chartered from Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group LLC and comes with a four-member crew and three catering personnel. The company's Web site also advises that charters can be "pre-empted by Presidential usage."

The Sequoia is owned by Gary Silversmith, a lawyer and collector of presidential memorabilia, who purchased the vessel in 2000 for $1.9 million. A National Historic Landmark, the yacht is docked on the waterfront in Southwest Washington at Gangplank Marina.

The yacht is but one in a long succession of presidential vessels that date to the 19th century when Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield and Grover Cleveland took in the salty breezes from the deck of the Despatch.

Over the years, other presidential yachts have included the Sylph, Dolphin, Mayflower, Honey Fitz, Williamsburg, Potomac and Sequoia, offering a relaxing venue away from the pressures of Washington or a setting for entertaining official guests and other heads of state.

Designed by the famed naval architect John Trumpy, the 150-ton Sequoia was built in 1925 at the Mathis Yacht Building Co. in Camden, N.J. Originally named the Savarona, the vessel's name was changed to Sequoia after a Texas oilman bought it in 1928.

In 1931, the yacht was sold to the government and was briefly used by the Department of Commerce to discourage bootleggers. Herbert Hoover was the first president to use the Sequoia, and during a trip to Florida played medicine ball on its deck.

FDR, who was disabled, had a hand-cranked elevator installed on the Sequoia so that he could move freely between lower and upper decks. This, according to Silversmith, made the Sequoia one of the first handicapped-accessible vessels in the country.

Lyndon B. Johnson had the elevator removed and a wet bar put in its place. Here the stewards prepared his favorite drink, scotch on the rocks.

Over the years, the Sequoia has provided the backdrop for some of history's great moments and some presidential foibles.

LBJ liked watching outdoor movies and used the yacht's funnel as a screen. The table in the dining salon still bears the mark of a frustrated Harry S. Truman, who pounded it during a poker game. Churchill complained to FDR that the deck chairs were uncomfortable.

John F. Kennedy liked his privacy and had a slot cut in the door of the presidential suite that allowed important papers to be dropped while not disturbing his solitude.

The yacht's log books also detail the preferred beverages of presidents and their guests. FDR and Robert F. Kennedy enjoyed Manhattans, while Churchill sipped scotch and sodas and tumblers of Hine brandy. Gerald Ford and Jacqueline Kennedy ordered gin and tonics while Mamie Eisenhower enjoyed I.W. Harper bourbon. Truman was also a bourbon drinker (Old Grand Dad), as was Pat Nixon (Jack Daniel's). Emperor Hirohito and Eleanor Roosevelt liked mineral water.

Nixon may hold the record for using the Sequoia : 88 times. On the night he decided to resign the presidency, he took his family for a cruise on the Potomac, and after telling them of his decision, he sat at the Truman piano while they joined in singing "God Bless America."

It was Carter, anxious to remove all traces of Nixon's "Imperial Presidency," who ordered that the Sequoia be sold. In 1977, a Rhode Island businessman bought it for $286,000.

In the intervening years, the ship went from owner to owner before being purchased and brought back to Washington by Silversmith.

However, the 78-year-old vessel needed repairs, and in order to retain its Coast Guard certification, that work had to be done. After consultation with Coast Guard officials and Mike Vlahovich, a shipwright who manages the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's boatyard, it was decided the vessel would put into the St. Michaels yard for the needed repairs.

Deteriorated starboard and port planks, both fore and aft, would be replaced along with screws that had worked loose over the years.

The vessel arrived July 26, and Vlahovich and his crew of apprentices and ship carpenters worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, to complete the work. The Sequoia sailed for its Washington home on Sept. 2.

"In fact, they got her out a few days early," said Bill Thompson, maritime museum spokesman.

"They replaced planks and sistered in new pieces. They refitted scores and scores of screws that were loose and kept popping out. The Sequoia is a special boat, and everyone wants to keep her afloat and healthy. We had the yard, equipment and experts to do the work," he said.

Thompson said the Sequoia's owner chose the museum yard for the work because of Vlahovich's reputation as a restorer of old boats. Normally, he and his crew work on saving and restoring skipjacks, and the Sequoia was something different.

"While the crew still prefers working on skipjacks and they thought the Sequoia a little too fancy, they were impressed when they had to go inside of her," Thompson said. "She's loaded with photos, memorabilia, JFK's rocking chair, books and letters."

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