History of the Presidential Yacht: The USS Sequoia

Being a US President comes with exclusive perks: living in the White House, vacationing at Camp David, having ready access to Air Force One, and a presidential state car. But before, presidents had their own personal boat.

Former US Presidents sailed in style aboard luxury yachts, mainly for recreational purposes. Some of the presidential yachts included the USS Dolphin, USS Mayflower, USS Potomac, USS Williamsburg, and the last and the longest in service, the USS Sequoia.

The USS Sequoia was a 104-foot executive cruiser used by government agencies and presidents from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter. For 44 years, eight Presidents had used the yacht as a venue for recreation and official meetings and gatherings.

The USS Sequoia was first owned privately. It was built for Philadelphia businessman Richard Cadwalader during the mid-1920s for $200,000 and was eventually sold to William Dunning, the president of Texas Sequoia Oil Company.

In 1931, the USS Sequoia was purchased by the US Department of Commerce as a decoy boat to arrest bootleggers during the Prohibition. That same year, Herbert Hoover borrowed it from the government agency as an unofficial yacht during the last two years of his term, as he decommissioned the presidential yacht Mayflower in 1929. Hoover used it mainly for his favorite pastime: fishing. During the Great Depression, Hoover sailed the Sequoia to Florida to visit his mother. He also put the Sequoia on the cover of his White House Christmas card in 1932.

Sequoia gained her USS status when she was commissioned by the US Navy and was used as the official presidential yacht in 1933. She was quickly decommissioned as an official Navy vessel by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 so that leaders, specifically Winston Churchill, could drink liquor on it. Roosevelt chose the USS Potomac as his official yacht, but during World War II, he secretly met with then-Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower on the Sequoia to discuss plans for D-Day invasion.

From 1936 until 1939, the USS Sequoia was used as the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. Then from 1939 to 1977, she was used by the Navy as well as the president, with officials from the executive branch.

Some of the Navy crew that served more than one president usually found the leaders to be in a good mood while aboard Sequoia. The yacht had been the setting of some of America’s most historic and interesting events.

It was aboard the Sequoia when Harry Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Truman also conducted the world’s first nuclear arms control summit on the yacht. He also reportedly became angry during a poker game in the main salon where he damaged the table with a cigar cutter. Later on, he put up a piano in the area that he and Richard Nixon enjoyed playing.

When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he allowed Queen Elizabeth II to use the Sequoia during her visit. He also entertained Korean war veterans there.

John F. Kennedy was a Navy veteran before he became president, so he enjoyed the sea while aboard the Sequoia quite a bit. He held strategy meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also celebrated his 46th birthday, which turned out to be his last, on the yacht in 1963 with family and close friends such as actor David Niven.

Lyndon B. Johnson entertained other leaders on the Sequoia and lobbied for civil rights. He also allegedly watched films aboard that may not have been suitable for the White House.  He brought a movie projector and watched movies on the upper deck by using the smokestack as a screen. The crew reported that Johnson complained about the small doorknob in the Presidential Stateroom and the small shower that he did not find fitting for his 6’3” height. Because of that, the doorknob was replaced with a bigger, Texas-style knob and the shower floor was lowered three inches.

Richard Nixon spent the most time on the Sequoia of all the presidents who used the yacht. He negotiated the SALT I arms treaty with Russian officials aboard her and often sequestered himself there during the scandal of Watergate era. During the last years of his presidency, he began to think that his enemies were bugging the Sequoia so he demanded an electronic shield to be built around the boat. He ordered that the entire railings be drilled with small pinholes six inches apart. It was aboard the yacht in 1974 when he played “God Bless America” on the piano before deciding to resign than to face impeachment.

Gerard Ford conducted Cabinet meetings and negotiated trade issues with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the Sequoia.  Jimmy Carter was the last president to use the yacht, as he decided to sell her at an auction in 1977 to cut back Federal government spending.

Even after the Sequoia was sold, later presidents still used the yacht. Ronald Reagan met 50 state governors at its gangplank, Bill Clinton met with high tech executives on the boat, and George Bush met with Chinese premier Li Peng on it.

After the Sequoia was decommissioned, she had several owners for 25 years. In 1980, the Presidential Yacht Trust purchased her and sponsored an eight-month comeback tour, but it went bankrupt after three years. The vessel was abandoned for a long time before Japanese buyers expressed interest to purchase the boat in the early 2000s. However, before any contract was signed, Washington attorney Gary Silversmith made a counter-offer of around $2 million and eventually gained ownership of the Sequoia. Silversmith renovated the ship and made it available as a charter cruise ship in 2003. It has been a tourist attraction since then.

In 2004, the Congress decided to appropriate $2 million to buy the Sequoia, but she remained under private ownership. In 2012, Silversmith arranged a $5 million loan from investment firm FE Partners, a joint venture between a D.C.-based merchant bank and an India-based mining company, where the Sequoia was offered as collateral. The deal turned into a lawsuit between two parties, with Silversmith claiming that the full amount was never received, and FE Partners charging that it had been deceptively induced into making the loan and that the statements of debts were misrepresented.

In 2016, the Sequoia was hauled to a boatyard in Virginia. The lawsuit between the owner and the lender has been complicated. By November, the Delaware court finally reached a decision that FE Partners owed Silversmith nothing in exchange for the yacht. It was concluded that Silversmith fraudulently obtained the loan and violated his contract to keep the yacht in good working order for her intended purpose. The judge determined that the adjusted exercise price is zero dollars, however, FE Partners petitioned to reconsider the decision on the exercise price. They claimed that the documents place the exercise price at $8.56 million below zero.