23 tons of floating history slowly sails back to Potomac

Franklin Roosevelt fished over the side. Harry Truman entertained congressmen with the piano he had installed. Dwight Eisenhower drove golf balls off the stern.

Richard Nixon huddled with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev on the upper deck at the height of detente.

And Jimmy Carter sold it.

As the nation's official presidential yacht, the 105-foot white and teak Sequoia provided a backdrop for much of American history for 44 years. Sold in 1977 by President Carter (who thought it an inappropriate symbol of luxury), it wandered for seven years from owner to owner. Now owned and operated by the Presidential Yacht Trust, the 1925-vintage craft is on tour of the eastern United States before returning to Washington to ferry governmental leaders.

''She's a thrill to command,'' says Capt. Giles Kelly, gingerly maneuvering the delicate yacht into its berth at St. Petersburg's pier. ''It's a beautiful, old, crafted yacht - like owning an early Mercedes. It has all the style that could be built into a yacht in the 1920s that people drool over today.''

Weighing in at 23 tons, the Sequoia can safely carry about 40 guests in polished splendor with salon, full galley, and large dining table, as well as staterooms and baths.

''But what's equally exciting,'' says the white-haired retired Navy captain and Foreign Service officer, ''is the knowledge of the history that has gone on here. Not only did it serve eight presidents, but Churchill planned war strategy with Roosevelt here, and such world leaders as (Japanese Emperor) Hirohito and Brezhnev have been aboard. If these walls could talk, they could teach history.

''Of course, if these walls could talk,'' he adds, referring to many of the informal parties that had been held aboard, ''half of it would have to be censored.''

Indeed, the walls might have more than a few interesting tidbits to share since the yacht has been a haven for presidents under fire as well as those entertaining dignitaries or enjoying a pleasure cruise down the Potomac.

Records have shown that President Nixon spent more time aboard the Sequoia and made significantly more trips during the 1973-74 period of the Watergate scandal than during previous years.

President Ford was the last officially to operate a presidential yacht, and President Carter was the first president actually to shun the luxury of having one.

Since the presidential yacht tradition began with Rutherford B. Hayes, most presidents have preferred to speak disdainfully of the wasteful luxury of a yacht - while still enjoying the use of one or sometimes two.

President Kennedy said he would need only one, but made use of both the Honey Fitz and the Patrick J. A press secretary for President Eisenhower is reported to have tried to exchange the term ''yacht'' for ''cabin cruiser,'' because it sounded too luxurious.

Originally purchased in 1931 by the Department of Commerce, the Sequoia was intended for use as a decoy ship to trap rum runners on the Mississippi. She was later purchased by the Navy Department for use as a presidential yacht.

The Presidential Yacht Trust was founded in 1981 after self-made millionaire Richard Arendsee bought the Sequoia for $1.1 million and saved it from ending its days as a floating cocktail lounge behind a restaurant. The trust had a hard time getting started.

Last June, it was reorganized with a board of directors made up of influential people in the Republican and Democratic parties.

''We have avoided charges of political influence by making the trust bipartisan,'' said Josh Lanier, its director. ''We have gone out of our way to make sure the boat does not become a political toy. We have organized it more along the lines of the trust that saved and preserved Mount Vernon.''

The trust is now trying to raise a $10 million endowment - enough money to guarantee permanent maintenance and operation of the Sequoia, Mr. Lanier says. It is offering limited use of the craft to patrons willing to make $25,000 or $ 50,000 contributions, he explains, and it will be launching direct-mail solicitations for lesser amounts.

In the next few months, while the Sequoia tours around the Gulf Coast, up the Mississippi River, through the Great Lakes, down the Hudson River to New York, and on to Washington, the trust will be holding fund-raising cruises and dinners.

Once the money is raised for the endowment, the Sequoia's use will be limited to the president, vice-president, Cabinet members, and congressional leaders, Lanier says. But once every four years, during presidential elections, the trust plans to take it on a national tour.

The Sequoia left St. Augustine, Fla., on April 1 for its tour.Since then, some of its own history has come back on board.

''We had an 81-year-old man come aboard in Jacksonville,'' recalls Captain Kelly, ''who had been part of the crew when the yacht was launched for the first time by its two private owners before it was sold to the government. He gave us an idea of what she was like before the Navy changed her. He also showed us where the owners hid the liquor they picked up when they rendezvoused with rumrunners at sea.''

Another man, who served as bo'sun's mate during the Kennedy administration, recounted how the president had had some fun with him, Captain Kelly says.

The mate was new to the job and it was his duty to pipe the president aboard - beginning to pipe when the president set foot on the gangway, and continuing until he walked off it.

''But Kennedy knew he was new to the job,'' Kelly said. ''So he put his foot on the gangway, and when the boatswain's mate started piping, he stepped off. When the b'sun's mate stopped, he put his foot back on, and then took it off again.''

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