Having floated about in the highest society for 40 years, should the presidential yacht Sequoia, in her old age, be allowed to drift whenever the social currents might take her.
At least two federal agencies, two city governments and a number of historical preservation societies, corporations, citizens, and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt have been arguing this question since President Carter announced he didn't need a yacht and ordered the Sequoia sold at public auction.
The public auction is going on now. The yacht is available for inspection, by appointment, in the Washington Navy Yard, and sealed bids are being taken by the Defense Property Disposal Ship Sales Office in Portsmouth, R.I.
But today, prompted by the concerns of various conservationists, the Department of the Interior plans to suggest to the Department of the Navy that the Secretary of the Navy ask the Secretary of the Interior to determine whether the Sequoia should be declared an historic monument.
If that happens, the government could donate the Sequoia to a maritime museum or a city (Baltimore and Marquette, Mich, have expressed interest) which would open it to the public, or it could put a covenant on the sale, restricting the usage.
When the presidential yachts Patricia and Julie were offered for public sale in 1970, President Nixon stipulated that they could "not be made into gambling casinos or for some other notorious use." Not one bid came in, and the covenant was removed. One is now a charter boat and the other a restaurant.
Checking the historic status - the responsible agency has to request the Interior Department to do this - should have been donw before offering the Sequoia for sale, according to Leon Scherther of the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, who was also vice president of Operation Sail, the Bicentennial tall ships project.
"I know what happens to these yachts," he said, "They end up as gambling casinos in the Bahamas, or floating whorehouses. This could be a very interesting floating museum, but the maritime preservationists can't afford to compete with the multi-millionaires."
Scherther's worst fears might seem to be confirmed by the fact that vice president of Larry Flynt Publications, which publishes Hustler, has had the yacht appraised and is coming to Washington to inspect it on Friday.
But Larry Flynt says that's just because "people think of us as being in a seedy room, taking dirty pictures. But we're just as concerned about our corporate image as any other corporation."
So what does he want to do with it?
?Maybe put a brothel on the Potomac.
"No, seriously, I thought maybe we'd donate it to the Ohio Historical Society to put it on the Ohio River, like the Delta Queen and other river boats. There's a tremendous amount of nostalgic association with the presidential yacht. If the historical societies don't do something about these things, they disappear. We'd also like to buy the (Marjorie Merriweather) Post estate in Palm Beach. These are phenomona we'll never, ever see again and if someone doesn't step in the American heritage will go to rot."
However, Flynt was in California yesterday when he said this, and had not yet heard from his vice president, Jack Gallagher, whose appraiser told him that "There are serious structural defeats in the keel, which were not made public, and would take close to $200,000 to repair.
"Flynt's unique and may want to buy it anyway," Gallagher said.
Evel Kneivel, who already owns three yachts, also made an inquiry about the Sequoia, but no one representing him has seen it or bid on it. The viewers included some sightseers and corporations, including representatives from the Diplomant Resort Hotel in Florida, the restaurant-ship Dandy in Alexandriaand the International Sports Hall of Fame. Forty bids have been received.
Unless the sale is stopped, the bids will be opened publically on May 18 in Portsmith, and the highest bidder - whoever he is and whatever he wants to do with the Sequois - will get it.
Excdpt the Flynt doesn't expect to."I don't think the government wants to me to have it," she sadi. "They'll find some way to keep hands off it."