USS Sequoia: the Presidential Yacht

American presidents are well-treated, if you think about it. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but the benefits are first class: an entourage, staffed with policy experts, special assistants, lawyers and doctors. Then there's Air Force One, probably the most important airborne platform in the world. Presidents also have Camp David, a retreat close to Washington D.C. where they can go from time-to-time to recharge their presidential batteries.

In some ways, however, they use to have it better. For example, there have been seven presidential yachts throughout American history, starting with the USS Dispatch, used by President Rutherford B. Hayes. However, most of the yachts were military vessels (and looked like it!). But, the USS Sequoia (AG-23) was built as a luxury craft and was the latest and, by far, the most famous of the presidential yachts. It was employed as a presidential yacht for the longest period, servicing presidents Hoover through Carter. This article is devoted to helping you learn more about that special vessel.

Features

The Sequoia is a 91-ton, Trumpy yacht, built as a private yacht between 1923-1925. At 104 feet, she is the largest of the Trumpy yachts of her time, with a beam of 18’ 2” and a hull made of long-leaf yellow pine. She is driven by two large Detroit diesel engines, with a 1400-gallon tank of diesel fuel. Its former owner, William Dunning an oil exec. of Sequoia Oil (hence her name) fell on hard times during the Depression and sold her to the Commerce Department in 1931 for $42,500 where she was used to capture bootlegers during Prohibition. Apparently, rum-runners would see the Sequoia as a rich-man’s vessel and would come alongside her, thinking they had found some thirsty customers, only to be greeted with federal agents who would arrest them and charge them with violating Prohibition. Later, the vessel was acquired by the US Navy as a yacht for the president and was first used by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.

Herbert Hoover

No one, perhaps with the exception of Jimmy Carter, rivaled Herbert Hoover when it came to bad judgment. Calvin Coolidge called Hoover the "Wonder Boy" and one time remarked that "that man [speaking of Hoover] has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad." [1] Sequoia had been used by the Commerce Department to catch bootleggers during Prohibition. But what did Hoover use it for? You guessed it; he violated Prohibition on it.* Then during the trying days of the Depression, Hoover placed a picture of the Sequoia on the White House Christmas Card of 1932 so that the American people could see how their president lived in the lap of luxury while they struggled to find a job all the while watching their farms being dispossessed. Hoover actually thought that the American people would want to see their president living well during the trying days of the Depression.

Franklin Roosevelt

FDR at least had the good sense not to be as public about his use of the Sequoia. But he did relish using it. He and Eleanor would travel from DC to Annapolis where they would embark on the yacht. A chair lift was installed on the vessel so that stewards would not have to lift the disabled president from one level to the next, a practice that the president despised. It's been suggested that the Sequoia might have been one of the first federal vessels that was handicap-accessible. Roosevelt apparently fished from the aft salon (it was windowless then) and the log books show that he caught a four-inch perch one time. He and Eleanor would bring their work on board the yacht. At times, Roosevelt would spend the night there, but Eleanor's sea legs were no match for the president's so she would be driven back to the White House at the end of the day.

Apparently, FDR and Churchill planned elements of D-Day onboard the Sequoia. However, there was a small problem: for while it seems that Mr. Churchill could hold his liquor well-enough, he also could not go long without it. This is a problem since you can't drink alcohol onboard a commissioned naval vessel. So, Roosevelt had the Sequoia struck from the naval registry and decommissioned, a status that she maintained thereafter (technically, the "USS" part of the "USS Sequoia" does not apply).

Harry Truman

Not much to say about Mr. Truman except that he had a temper, but we already knew that. Apparenlty, he got so frustrated with his poker game on one occasion that he smashed the yacht's dining room table with a cigar cutter, creating a nice scar on an otherwise beautiful piece of American memorabilia.

However, when Truman was not marring government property, he could be more productive. He had a piano placed on the yacht which he loved to play and often could not resist passing the upright without playing a chord or two or perhaps some Mozart or Chopin, two of his favorites.

Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower had been on the Sequoia prior to becoming president. During the Truman Administration, he and other officials worked on some of the details of the Marshall Plan. We know very little about Ike’s use of the vessel as he would never allow himself to be photographed on the yacht.

John Kennedy

Of all the presidents to use the yacht, John Kennedy seemed to be the most adept to it (perhaps with the exception of FDR), being that he was wealthy and he had been a navy man. Kennedy would have his last birthday party, his 46th, on the Sequoia before being assassinated months later. Many family and friends gathered on the yacht that evening to wish the president well, for many, the last salutary gesture they would ever give him. After his assassination, and within hours, the skipper on the boat was ordered to the White House where he was told to destroy the ship’s logs. Apparently there were activities on the Sequoia that Kennedy toadies felt should not be made public. Probably just as well, as the more we find out about the Kennedys, the more they make us sad. At any rate, the crew of the Sequoia spoke highly of the president and felt that he and his friends brought a lot of life to the vessel.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson, the tallest-small man to ever occupy the White House, liked to watch his porn films on the top deck (he used the white smokestack as a picture screen). And while it’s true that he hammered out some of his Civil Rights legislation aboard the yacht, his egalitarian impulses did not extend to the disabled as he removed the wheelchair lift so that he could install a bar instead. Also, Johnson was unhappy that he could not stand erect in the onboard shower as the ceiling was too low, so they lowered the floor by three inches so that he could stand erect, a real oddity given that being crooked was Johnson’s natural posture for most of his adult life. And when he was not running around the boat in his underwear, he used the Sequoia for that which he was most famous for: imposing his 6’ 3” frame to bully little senators into accepting his vision of the Nanny State.

Richard Nixon

They say Nixon was an odd fellow, and by most accounts, he was. He brought his peculiar take on the world to the Sequoia. Nixon always wore a tie, coat, and shoes on the yacht and never took them off while on her—I guess he felt he had to overcompensate for his predecessor’s juvenility. Stewards noted that Nixon would even take a nap in his coat. It's a wonder he slept at all: Nixon felt that the White House was bugged and that the only place he felt that he could have a truly private conversation was at the sauna at Camp David and on the fish deck of the Sequoia. Nixon used the yacht more than any other president—over a hundred times. For Nixon, it was mostly an opportunity to escape from the White House.

However, Nixon was also a master at using the yacht to gain political advantage as Charles W. Colson recounts in his book God and Government:

We needed several electoral rich Northeastern and Midwestern states to win the 1972 election—or so we thought. So one spring day I called a prominent Christian leader whose influence was particularly great in that region and invited him for a private dinner cruise with the president.
As we arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, sailors in white dress uniforms lined the gangway at attention and saluted as the three of us boarded the presidential yacht,
Sequoia. Its mahogany sides and brass fittings sparkled as the grand old vessel eased away from its dock.
The Washington skyline faded into the distance, and the president escorted us to dinner in the main salon. White House china, silver, and crystal appointed the starched white tablecloth; stewards scurried back and forth serving chateaubriand and the vintage La Fete Rothschild….
Before we arrived at Mount Vernon, the president led us to the foredeck and stood at attention as the colors were retired, his hand over his heart. Our guest did the same. When the bugle had faded, we docked; a waiting Marine helicopter took our new friend back to the airport, and returned Mr. Nixon and me to the White House lawn….
[2]

There was a tradition that when naval vessels sailed past Mount Vernon, the vessel’s occupants would come topside and stand at attention, face Washington’s tomb and taps would be played. Nixon carried on this tradition; however they often did not have a bugler on board. So Nixon would have taps played on a 45 rpm phonograph.

With Nixon, history was made onboard the Sequoia. He and Lenoid Breshnev negotiated arms control onboard. Nixon also made one of the most important announcements in the history of the American presidency while onboard. During the final days of Watergate, Nixon spent a lot of time on the yacht. In August, 1974 Nixon and his family were onboard the Sequoia for their final stay. That evening Nixon asked everyone to leave him alone in the darkened main salon while he sat at the piano with a bottle of Scotch playing “God Bless America” over and over. Like Truman, Nixon was a pianist and often played the ivories on board. After he finished, he rejoined his family in the aft salon and told them that he was resigning the presidency.

Jimmy Carter

President Carter had the government sell the yacht in 1977 apparently thinking it too ostentatious for his presidency of blue jeans sans “Hail to the Chief.” He never even set foot on the yacht. It’s probably just as well: Carter had a propensity for taking a good thing—like the United States—and running it into the ground. Had he kept the Sequoia, this former Navy man would have found a way to sink her.

To Carter’s credit, the yacht was costing the government about $800,000 yearly to upkeep. And the reputation of the presidency had been greatly damaged by the Watergate scandal along with the smell of corruption following Ford’s pardoning of Nixon. Carter was looking for a way to improve the president's reputation.

Apparently, not everyone in Carterville was happy that he sold the yacht. When the Carters invited the Reagans to the White House in 1981 during the transition, apparently Roselyn Carter, after talking to the Reagans and praising the value of Camp David, turned to Jimmy and snidely said, “At least you didn’t sell that.”

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On May 18, 1977, the Defense Department auctioned off the Sequoia to Thomas Malloy. Some of the other bidders were Armand Hammer, Larry Flynt, and Evil Knievel.

The Sequoia exchanged hands several times until she wound up with Washington D.C. attorney Gary Silversmith, who purchased the Sequoia for about $1.9 million in 2000 from a Norfolk shipyard. The shipyard had restored the Trumpy yacht in 1986, but kept possession of it after its owners, a non-profit, could not make good on the restoration fee of $3.2 million. Congress had designated the Sequoia a national historical landmark in 1985.

What is the status of the Sequoia now? Silversmith had been renting her out for $10,000 for a four-hour tour to offset the costs of her upkeep. He had stated that he intended to eventually turn the yacht over to a non-profit who will be her caretaker and allow the American people the chance to have access to her as a museum of presidential history. However, the expense to upkeep the wooden yacht has put the Sequoia in dry dock since 2014. Silversmith had taken out a loan to restore the vessel, but later became embroiled in a legal dispute over the ownership of the yacht. Sadly, the Sequoia's future status remains uncertain.

Reference

[1] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper/Collins, 1997), 718.

[2] Charles Colson, God and Government: An Insider’s View on the Boundaries Between Faith and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 308-309.

*Many of the stories in this article are told by Gary Silversmith in a documentary he did for C-SPAN on the Sequoia. You can view the documentary here at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/SSSe.

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Comments 3 comments

Bibowen profile image

Bibowen 3 years ago Author

When was the rule adopted that we can't express our political opinions here? I missed the memo. Thanks for reading.


Wiskye 3 years ago

This article is offensive. I wanted to learn about the presidential yacht. The author of this article missed the boat! His political opinions do NOT belong here.


American_Choices profile image

American_Choices 4 years ago from USA

I follow the Kennedy info fairly carefully. Found these facts very interesting. The back stories of what happened and what records were destroyed. Oh, IF only the skipper would talk-what a great book deal he would have.

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