Former Presidential Yacht Sequoia May Be Headed North

The presidential yacht Sequoia, carrying President Richard M. Nixon and his family, returns to port Aug. 5, 1974, after a late-afternoon cruise on the Potomac. Nixon resigned four days later.
The presidential yacht Sequoia, carrying President Richard M. Nixon and his family, returns to port Aug. 5, 1974, after a late-afternoon cruise on the Potomac. Nixon resigned four days later. (Associated Press)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill hashed out war strategy on board, John F. Kennedy celebrated his last birthday and Richard M. Nixon spent the darkest hours of his presidency floating up and down the Potomac, but never past the Watergate complex.

The USS Sequoia, that motorized, mahogany-laden yacht of eight presidents, has been a prized piece of Washington memorabilia since the federal government purchased it during Prohibition, originally to chase down rumrunners on the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, a maritime museum in Connecticut, Mystic Seaport, has acquired an option to purchase the 80-year-old vessel, which could mean relocating it more than 350 miles north of its current berth on Maine Avenue SW, where groups lease it for as much as $10,000 for four hours.

Tom Smith, vice president of the company that owns the Sequoia, said the museum has six months to negotiate a price. Smith said the company's principal, Gary Silversmith, a lawyer who paid $1.9 million for the yacht in 2000, would prefer to keep it but would sell to a not-for-profit institution that has the expertise to care for it.

"In his heart, he feels Mystic is appropriate for preserving the vessel," Smith said.

Peter Glankoff, a spokesman for Mystic Seaport, declined to say how much it was prepared to pay, though he said the price, in addition to the funds that would be required for maintenance, "is currently beyond the scope" of the museum's $15 million annual operating budget.

"People may emerge who believe that this is something that Mystic Seaport has to do, that this country has to do, that this is an important artifact that needs to be preserved," he said.

The 104-foot vessel, built by John Trumpy in 1925 for a Philadelphia financier, was purchased by the Commerce Department six years later. The Navy designated it the presidential yacht during the Hoover administration.

Giles M. Kelly, a retired naval captain who is the author of a recent history of the Sequoia, said a Trumpy yacht is "like having an old Rolls-Royce around. There are only a few of them left."

"She's a beautiful example of high-end wooden boats of the era of the 1920s," Kelly said.

Roosevelt liked to hang his fishing rod off the side while taking refuge on the Sequoia during steamy Washington summers. President Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed watching movies on the top deck. Nixon used the boat more than any other president.

Andrew Combe, the yacht's captain from 1971 to 1974, said that during Nixon's last summer in office, a presidential aide ordered Combe to "minimize exposure" to the Watergate complex while cruising the Potomac and to not allow newspapers on board.

Some evenings, Combe recalled, Nixon showed up alone to spend a few hours on the boat. On others, he came with his wife, Patricia, and two daughters, including the night before he resigned in August 1974. Rose Mary Woods, his secretary, also came along.

The president, Combe said, made no mention of his plans as he left the yacht that night, though the captain said he sensed that he was on the brink of a historic moment from the way the first lady said goodbye.

"She said it with much more gusto and sincerity," he said. "I got the sense that I wasn't going to see these people again."

President Jimmy Carter ordered the Sequoia auctioned in 1977 as he sought to strip the presidency of its fancier accoutrements, and it has since had several private owners. Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, was one of the unsuccessful bidders, Kelly said.

Although he bemoans the possibility of its being relocated to New London, Conn., Mystic Seaport would dispatch it for regular appearances in Washington.

Glankoff said: "The idea would be that she would be an ambassador up and down the East Coast and spend time down by the Potomac. I don't think you can really remove her from Washington."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company