The USS Sequoia (9/12/11)

Of the many atrocities of the Carter administration, the worst, by far, was the sale of the USS Sequoia.

That unspeakable "austerity measure" left the presidency literally rudderless. No longer could the leader of the free world relax on his personal yacht, dress like Thurston Howell, enjoy adult beverages and laugh at the poor people on the banks of the Potomac. It took $3 trillion in defense spending to once again elevate the office to a modicum of international respectability, but even now, if the president so much as spits on a commoner it's a national scandal. Truly, the White House has never been the same.

The only silver lining is that plebes can now tour the yacht, which has a happy home among the dinner cruisers and marina drunks on DC's Southwest waterfront. It's not a "cheap" outing, mind you. Friends looked at chartering the boat for my bachelor party, and quickly decided that I wasn't THAT good of a friend. But the owners do offer the occasional 2-hour cruise. Our first anniversary was coming up, so my wife decided to set the gift-giving bar far too high. She snagged us some tickets for Sept. 11.

It's great. There's old-timey elegance at work: it's a wood vessel, and it feels like at least one person on board should be sporting a monocle at all times. It wasn't always a presidential yacht; the story goes that the Commerce Department bought it from private owners and used it as bait for Prohibition-era bootleggers. They'd take the boat out on the river, act like a bunch of rich people with the shakes, wait for illegal booze merchants to show up, and then arrest them.

The SS Killjoy didn't last, however. Herbert Hoover had decomissioned the old presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower, near the start of his term. Though a rich man, he preferred the simple life at Camp Rapidan, especially with more than half the population becoming hobos. But Washington is brutally hot in the summer (most political history is dictated by people wanting to get the hell out by August) and Hoover loved to fish. The lure of cool waters just minutes away was too great. The Sequoia was put in service.

And so Hoover was photographed on the yacht during the Depression, and lost in a landslide to a guy who practically grew up on a yacht.

You can't blame that on the Sequoia, though. She's a fine vessel. There's a beautifully paneled dining room, a good fishing spot at the stern, a nice deck on the roof and cabins for six. It's not spacious below decks, but there's enough room to put on your tuxedo before having dinner with the prime minister upstairs. She can't handle the high seas, but she's just fine for cruising the shallows or private Cabinet meetings. According to the crew, many presidents left their mark:

  • FDR converted it into maybe the first handicapped-accessible yacht by installing an elevator. He enjoyed fishing off the back deck, which gave him a real chance to escape -- not the war and the economy, but his sham marriage to Eleanor, who totally hogged the reading area.
  • Truman once took the ship all the way to Key West, sticking to shallow coastal waters for the journey. He added a piano to the dining room, and a gash on the dining table apparently was created when Truman struck it after losing in poker. It was a big deal because he had wagered the 1946 defense budget.
  • JFK loved using the boat, which gave him a chance to indulge his favorite hobby: banging hot chicks. A special bed was installed in the president's quarters to help with his bad back, and because he blew through mattress springs at a horrific rate. He had a panel installed on the bedroom door so the Secret Service could pass him notes without having to open the door, and a special dinghy to cast clingy broads adrift if they got all weird and stuff. His last birthday party was spent on the Sequoia.
  • Johnson had FDR's elevator removed to install a wet bar. If that sounds callous, remember that he needed to have booze, to fully enjoy the "cigar films" he watched on the upper deck. Oh, and he allegedly had plane take-offs at National Airport put on hold if the movie was a good part. Yeah.
  • Nixon spent some of his last days in office on the boat, and the captain told us it was on the Sequoia -- while drinking Scotch alone at Truman's piano -- that he decided to resign. He apparently told his family about his decision on the aft deck, and then immediately dove off into the water to return to his life as crown prince of the mer-men. He was under a lot of stress, mind you.

So while the boat never strapped on torpedoes and hunted German submarines, it does have a sense of history. And once you're on board, you can go just about anywhere outside of the galley. They do have cameras hidden everywhere, so you shouldn't try to live out your JFK role-playing fantasy (one of the crew told us people have tried). But it's still neat to roam the ship with a cocktail and think about all the extra-marital affairs and weird 1960s pornos were enjoyed by the most powerful men in America. You know, relaxing.

It was a great cruise, and I really do want to apologize for crashing the boat into the South Capitol Street bridge.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White