When is a yacht not a yacht?

by Spencer Howard

At his news conference on March 22, 1929, President Hoover announced that he had ordered the Presidential yacht, USS Mayflower, decommissioned.  He explained, “The Secretary of the Navy reports that it costs over $300,000 a year to maintain the yacht and that it requires a complement of 9 officers and 148 enlisted men.”  The expense and personnel, he felt, could be better used for new cruisers nearing completion.  And as the newspapers noted, Hoover was not very fond of sailing, and had already made plans to build a fishing camp in the mountains of Virginia.

What exactly was Hoover giving up?  Originally built in Scotland in 1896 as a luxurious ocean-going steam yacht, Mayflower was a rakish vessel, 243 feet long, 2690 tons displacement.  Her triple expansion steam engines could propel her at 17 knots (an impressive speed at that time) and when built, she sported a handsome brigantine sail rig.  In 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, she was purchased by the U.S. Navy, armed to the teeth, and her sails converted to a more practical schooner rig.  She was assigned to the blockade of Cuba where she captured several small craft and engaged in a brief skirmish with a Spanish gunboat.  After the war, Mayflower served intermittently as a flagship for U.S. Navy detachments in the Caribbean.  Undoubtedly the flag officers found a luxury yacht to be much more comfortable than a lumbering battleship or cramped cruiser.

U.S.S. Mayflower

In 1905, Mayflower served as the site of the peace conference which ended the Russo-Japanese War.  President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the Russian and Japanese delegations on board, and the ship played a prominent role in support of the negotiations which won Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize.  Roosevelt was smitten by the ship’s impressive qualities and had her commissioned as the Presidential yacht.  For more than two decades, she was the scene of many important diplomatic and social events.

Hoover was uncomfortable with the pomp and ceremony of the Presidency.  Soon after his inauguration, for example, he ended the daily ritual of shaking hands with visitors to the White House, which he called an “ordeal” that wasted “a whole hour every day.”  Historians have suggested that part of Hoover’s motivation for moth-balling the Mayflower was his disdain for Coolidge’s weekly cruises down the Potomac, where he would stroll the deck acknowledging the salutes of passing vessels.

Hoover’s economy measure was not quite as economical as billed.  While the ship went into storage at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and most of the crew were transferred to other active-duty ships, the Filipino “mess boys” and much of the Mayflower’s furniture and equipment were sent to Hoover’s Virginia fishing retreat, Camp Rapidan.  They joined a detachment of Marines stationed there who were responsible for maintaining and guarding the President’s camp.

Camp Rapidan was Hoover’s principal get-away throughout his Presidency, but he did find a need for a watercraft from time to time.  In 1931, President Hoover was invited to attend the annual Cape Henry Pilgrimage, commemorating the arrival of the first English settlers to Virginia in 1607.  Travel by water was the most efficient way to get there, so Hoover borrowed a small motor yacht, Sequoia, that had recently been purchased by the Commerce Department for Prohibition patrol duties.

U.S.S. Sequoia, presidential yacht.

At 104 feet and 100 tons, Sequoia more resembled a luxury houseboat than an ocean-going yacht like Mayflower.  What Sequoia lacked in size, she made up in teak-paneled comfort.  She boasted luxury sleeping quarters for 6, and the spacious salon could host 22 guest for dinner, or up to 40 for cocktails.  Hoover fell in love with Sequoia, and “borrowed” her several times in the last two years of his Presidency, for short trips on the Potomac and Chesapeake, and for longer vacations down the coastal waterway to Georgia and Florida.

Theoretically, at least, Sequoia was undertaking inspection duty on these trips, to justify the use of the ship and crew.  Hoover paid from his own pocket for food and other expenses of himself and his guests.  Hoover’s critics, and perhaps the general public as well, saw little difference between the modest Sequoia and the flamboyant Mayflower.  As the nation sank into the Great Depression, Hoover’s use of Sequoia provided evidence for the accusation that Hoover was an out-of-touch plutocrat, unconcerned about the plight of the unemployed.

So what happened to Mayflower and SequoiaMayflower caught fire in 1931 while in storage, and sank.  The hull was salvaged and passed through the hands of numerous owners over the next decade.  In 1942 she was purchased by the War Shipping Board and transferred to the Coast Guard.  After substantial reconstruction as a modern gunboat, Mayflower served through World War II, guarding shipping in the Atlantic and searching for U-boats.  After the war, Mayflower was sold and eventually converted to a cargo ship renamed Malla.  In 1948, Malla secretly ferried Jewish refugees from Europe to the newly formed state of Israel.  In 1950, the Israeli Navy purchased Malla and used her for training and patrol duties;  she was finally sold for the last time and broken up in 1955.

President Franklin Roosevelt ended the pretense of “borrowing” Sequoia from the Commerce Department and had her commissioned as the official Presidential yacht shortly after his inauguration.  Roosevelt frequently used Sequoia and had an elevator installed between decks to accommodate his wheelchair.  In 1936, the wooden-hulled Sequoia was determined to be a fire risk and was replaced as the Presidential yacht by a converted Coast Guard cutter renamed USS Potomac.  Sequoia was redesignated as the official yacht of the Secretary of the Navy (apparently Navy Secretaries aren’t vulnerable to fire) and served until 1977.  During those years, Sequoia actually functioned as an unofficial Presidential yacht for every President from Truman to Carter.  President Kennedy found Sequoia a relaxing get-away with his wife and kids;  President Johnson held conferences with lawmakers on board, and had Roosevelt’s elevator replaced with a bar.  Nixon reportedly made his decision to resign on board Sequoia.

In 1977, President Carter ordered Sequoia sold as an economy measure, echoing Hoover’s decree for Mayflower.  Since then, Sequoia has passed through the hands of numerous owners, many of whom hoped to profit from Sequoia’s Presidential past.  In recent years, ownership of Sequoia was the subject of a lengthy legal battle which was finally resolved in 2016.  Sequoia remains in storage today, in need of extensive repairs to again be seaworthy.

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