Voyage Through History

Sequoia Yacht Docked in SW

Posted November 26, 2003 at 10:52am

On May 29, 1963, President John F. Kennedy and 21 others, including his wife, Jacqueline, and brothers Bobby and Edward, sailed along the Potomac River to celebrate the chief executive’s 46th birthday. Enjoying a glass of 1955 Dom Perignon to accompany his dinner, the USS Sequoia would be the host of Kennedy’s final birthday party.

[IMGCAP(1)] “Ethel Kennedy said it was such a night where everything was just perfect and just right,” said Gary Silversmith, a Washington lawyer who purchased the historic ship in 2000.

More than 40 years after JFK set sail for his swanky birthday bash, the Sequoia sits docked in Southwest Washington, no longer the official yacht of the president. The boat, which was crowned a National Historic Landmark by Congress in 1988, is a floating piece of presidential memorabilia full of quirky facts and interesting anecdotes.

President Herbert Hoover was the first chief executive to use the boat, built in 1925, for official cruises in 1929. Photographing the vessel for the 1932 White House Christmas card, the one-term president sailed with his family to Florida during the height of the Depression for a holiday vacation on the Sequoia. Once pictures of the family’s lavish vacation were released, the starving public was outraged.

The Sequoia ended its reign as “first yacht” in 1977, when it was decommissioned. With the nation amid an oil crisis and high unemployment rates, President Jimmy Carter purged many of the executive office bells and whistles, which included playing “Hail to the Chief” and having exclusive use of the USS Sequoia.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has called the Sequoia, which served 10 presidents from Hoover to Carter, “the greatest piece of Americana not owned by the federal government.”

After a $5 million restoration project, the all-wood Sequoia is now a gleaming white yacht in the Potomac and the envy of other ship owners.

The interior of the 104-foot ship is adorned with most of its original furnishings, including the dining room set used for the Kennedy birthday party and upper deck chairs Winston Churchill rested on during war strategy meetings with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even the rugs, which Silversmith hates, are the real thing.

“It’s multigenerational,” Silversmith said of the 78-year-old boat. “People all over the world recognize the Sequoia’s name.”

An enraged President Harry S. Truman left a foot-long scar on the dining room table during a heated poker game, a tantrum that occurred right around the time he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

During Watergate, it was on the Sequoia that President Richard Nixon told his family he would resign from office. As the story goes, after breaking the news, Nixon’s family left him in the main salon, where he sat hunched over the piano playing “God Bless America,” nursing a bottle of scotch.

Kennedy, a Navy veteran and noted sea-lover, was said to have used the boat dozens of times during his presidency, while only four of his cruises were considered official. Fearful that the president’s secretive late-night trips with various female guests would be made public after his assassination, the Sequoia’s captain received orders from the secretary of the Navy to destroy the logbook that might have read like a juicy gossip column, Silversmith said.

The Sequoia is Silversmith’s first and only yacht. A history buff with an interest in the presidents, the St. Louis native began collecting memorabilia at age 8 when he wrote a fan letter to Truman. The president replied with a hand-written letter, and Silversmith has been collecting letters and autographs ever since.

Although the president and vice president still receive top priority with the yacht — Vice President Cheney has used it several times while in office — Silversmith mostly rents out the sailing relic to politicians and diplomats. The Kennedy clan still uses the Sequoia for an occasional afternoon sail or family gathering.

“We always have to ask Arnold not to light up his cigar,” Silversmith said of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), a Kennedy in-law, who instead opts to wave around his unlit stogie on the nonsmoking boat.

Ethel Kennedy also boarded the Sequoia recently with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D). It was her first cruise since her brother-in-law’s party in 1963.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have requested the Sequoia make an appearance at their campaign conventions in New York and Boston, respectively, next year. Recent renters of the bipartisan boat have included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.).

“Some say it’s the most exclusive venue for a fundraiser,” Silversmith said. “I suppose it is more exciting than a hotel or restaurant.”

The mystique of the Sequoia also charms Hollywood. One of Silversmith’s favorite stories came out of another birthday bash, this time for legendary comedian Bob Hope. In the early 1980s, Hope hosted a gathering for some movie stars, including Ginger Rogers. The tipsy tap dancer wasn’t as graceful with her feet when she tripped on some steps and landed in the arms of the boat’s captain. The narrow stairs, apparently, weren’t sympathetic to high heels.

The interior of the yacht is peppered with original photographs from many of its impressive voyages. One picture shows Roosevelt, an avid fisherman, proudly displaying a 5-pound cod he had just fetched from the water. In another, JFK is seen relaxing in the aft salon surrounded by birthday presents and champagne bottles. More recent photographs include the annual Navy cadets holiday party and a thank you note from Mikhail Gorbachev.

Silversmith was a novice at boat restoration when he purchased the Sequoia more than three years ago. He turned to the vessel’s former crewmembers, who were all quite intimate with every nook of the boat, to return it to its original condition. Silversmith even consulted FDR’s captain on which shade of varnish should be used for the ship’s woodwork.

“People are so willing to help because this is a part of American history,” he said. “We just want to maintain the boat and its integrity.”