BELFAST — JFK celebrated his final birthday party onboard. LBJ reportedly used the Sequoia’s stately cabin rooms and deck to lobby members of Congress on civil rights legislation. And it was where Richard Nixon decided he had no choice but to resign the presidency to avoid impeachment.

The USS Sequoia served as a “floating White House” and a presidential retreat for decades but today is in such disrepair that the ship can no longer float on its own. Now, a small, specialty boatyard in Belfast has been hired to bring back the seaworthiness and elegance of a 104-foot yacht that presidents from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford used to relax, entertain or privately negotiate world matters.

President Franklin Roosevelt on board the yacht Sequoia on July 6, 1935. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Residents and visitors along Maine’s southern coast may spot the Sequoia – a National Historic Landmark – on Sunday or Monday conspicuously perched atop a barge hauling the former presidential yacht to Belfast for a much-needed restoration. The ship is expected to arrive Monday afternoon in Belfast, where it will receive an official welcome from city officials and the public.

Todd French, co-owner of the French & Webb boatyard that will be doing the restoration, said he feels fortunate that his staff and the state of Maine will be participating in this next chapter of the Sequoia’s story.

“It just sings to people,” French said Friday after returning from an unplanned trip to New London, Connecticut, where the barge weathered last week’s nor’easter. “There is so much of our Americana history wrapped up in this boat. … It served every type of president during its lifetime. It’s a treasure that needs to be saved.”

The Sequoia’s current owners, the private equity investment firm Equator Capital Group, hired French & Webb after a yearslong legal battle during which its condition deteriorated. Michael Cantor, managing partner at Equator Capital, said the post-restoration plan for Sequoia is to base the yacht back in Washington, D.C., and to use it as “a floating venue to teach American presidential history and to promote conservation and ocean conservation causes.”

“Just over a week ago, we began carefully transporting Sequoia by barge from Cambridge, Maryland, to Belfast, where a team of talented boatbuilders and craftsmen will restore it plank by plank,” Cantor said in a statement. “In four years, and hopefully sooner, Sequoia will be seaworthy and ready for Americans to once again enjoy the former presidential yacht’s storied past.”

The USS Sequoia is seen in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1932. The craft has been assigned to the White House, becoming the fifth Presidential Yacht, and its new home will be the Washington Navy Yard. In the background at left is the Washington Monument. ASSOCIATED PRESS

And so it appears that the Sequoia will escape the recent fate of another presidential yacht, the Maine-built USS Williamsburg. Despite several last-ditch attempts to save the Williamsburg, what was left of the rusted and half-sunken ship was sold for scrap in 2016.

The Sequoia boasts an even more illustrious history, however.

Built in 1925 by the famed yacht-makers John H. Mathis & Company of Camden, New Jersey, the Sequoia was used as a private vessel for years before it was purchased by the U.S. government in 1931. President Hoover quickly took a liking to the yacht and used it for fishing or pleasure cruises.

The boat would be reassigned to the U.S. Navy during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the larger, steel-hulled USS Potomac was designated the official presidential yacht. But the Sequoia would continue to be used by presidents, Navy officials and other top U.S. officials both for business and pleasure.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, before he became president, discussed one of the precursors to NATO with European leaders on board and then incorporated the yacht into his efforts to craft a nuclear deterrence strategy that would help define the Cold War.

John F. Kennedy regularly used the yacht himself with his family but also gave his congressional point person full access to the Sequoia to wine and dine members. In an oral history preserved by the LBJ Presidential Library, Lawrence O’Brien recalled how the Sequoia became an important tool for building relations between the White House and Congress – and often between members of Congress themselves – during those intimate, three-hour cruises on the Potomac River.

“I think, frankly, conversations took place on that boat between (the House and Senate) in terms of those members that otherwise probably never would have taken place,” said O’Brien, Kennedy’s special assistant on congressional relations.

Kennedy’s final birthday party was held on the Sequoia in May 1963, and his family and close friends reportedly gathered there again a year later after his assassination to mark what would have been his 47th birthday.

Lyndon B. Johnson also reportedly used the Sequoia to lobby members of Congress on his landmark civil rights legislation and to plot his administration’s strategy on the Vietnam War.

Nixon was perhaps the most frequent user of the Sequoia – including during the final weeks of his presidency as impeachment loomed over him.

On Aug. 1, 1974, Nixon brought one of his close personal confidants to the yacht to inform him that he believed he had no choice but to resign after the emergence of the so-called “smoking gun tape” showing his involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

Nixon’s family convinced him the next day to delay his decision. But four days later, Nixon was back on the Sequoia with his family when his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, entered the president’s private cabin to inform him of the additional, critical allies in Congress whom he lost as a result of the tape’s release.

The outcome of an impeachment proceeding was clear.

“And then she left the room, and so I just turned off the light and closed my eyes,” Nixon said in a video interview, titled “The ‘Smoking Gun’ and the Sequoia,” preserved by the Nixon Foundation.

While Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, used the Sequoia for business and relaxation, Jimmy Carter decided that the cost and optics of maintaining the aging presidential yacht were too high, especially during a time of tight budgets. The Sequoia was sold in May 1977 for $286,000.

The yacht was used for private charters and by historic preservation groups over the coming decades. But it has spent the past several years in a dry dock – unprotected from the weather or animals – in a Virginia shipyard while a legal fight played out.

Equator Capital finally obtained rights to the yacht last year and agreed to hire French & Webb, which has been involved in restoration talks for months. The cost of the restoration hasn’t been disclosed.

The work is expected to take several years to complete.


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