Presidential yacht Sequoia makes stop in New London

New London — The former presidential yacht Sequoia, a National Historic Landmark that hosted presidential cocktail parties and sit-downs with world leaders under eight presidents, made a surprise visit to the Whaling City on Wednesday.

The 104-foot “floating White House” was on its way from Maryland to a boatyard in Belfast, Maine, for a stem-to-stern, museum-quality restoration when it sought refuge from the upcoming storm.

It has found New London a welcoming stopover, said Todd French, project manager with French & Webb, the company that expects to spend years rebuilding the treasured piece of American history. French drove to New London to meet with curious bystanders and city dignitaries at City Pier on Wednesday afternoon.

French said there is documentation showing the Sequoia had made multiple stops in New London during its history that spanned the presidencies of Herbert Hoover through Gerald Ford. President Jimmy Carter, aware of the high maintenance costs, decided to auction the Sequoia off, and it shifted into private hands in 1977.

There was one New London visit documented in photos, by President Franklin Roosevelt, who watched his son row in the Harvard-Yale Regatta on the Thames River, French said.

The Sequoia picked up Roosevelt in New Haven on June 20, 1934, after he had received an honorary degree from Yale. The yacht brought the president to New London to see his son, Franklin Jr., row with the Harvard freshmen.

The night before the races, working aboard the Sequoia near the Naval Submarine Base, Roosevelt signed two pieces of banking and railroad legislation, then welcomed aboard his son and the members of the Harvard crews. Afterward, he took the Sequoia on a diplomatic cruise upriver to Gales Ferry to greet the Yale athletes.

The next day, as the president, wearing a white sea hat, watched the freshman race from the referee’s boat, Harvard lost, and the younger Roosevelt slumped over his oar at the finish line, The Day reported.

“It was a good race,” the president said noncommittally.

Roosevelt spent another night here, then disembarked the yacht at the Coast Guard Academy and left New London by car for his home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The Sequoia left soon after.

In September 1988, years after it left presidential service, Sequoia visited southeastern Connecticut as part of a 100-city tour. It made stops in New London, Norwich, Noank and Mystic. 

While looking for a place to duck into a harbor to wait out this week's storm, the Sequoia initially had planned to dock at State Pier. Plans changed after a chat with Connie Howard of U.S. Properties in New London. Howard had worked with French during a search for a suitable restoration site before settling on its own boatyard in Belfast, Maine.

The Sequoia would have been shielded from public view if it had been at State Pier.

The Sequoia is not yet seaworthy and made its trip to New London atop a barge. Most of the furniture has been moved to storage, but French said a piano remains aboard — the same piano on which President Richard Nixon supposedly played "God Bless America" before making his decision to resign during the Watergate scandal.

The yacht hasn't been seen by the public in years and had languished in disrepair for six years in a small boatyard in Deltaville, Va. The yacht, which once was the venue for President John F. Kennedy’s 46th birthday party and pre-war talks between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had become a home for raccoons.

A legal battle between the owner, Equator Capital Group, and the boatyard ended earlier this year. In September it was barged to the Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge, Md., the same site where Roosevelt, in 1935, had sailed aboard the Sequoia to dedicate the Choptank River Bridge.

“This past weekend, we began carefully transporting Sequoia by barge from Cambridge, Maryland, to Belfast, Maine, where a team of talented boatbuilders and craftsmen will restore it plank by plank,” said Michael Cantor, managing partner of Equator Capital Group.

“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,” Cantor said.

Once restored, the vessel will return to Washington, D.C., where it will serve as a venue to teach American presidential history, and promote ocean conservation causes, Cantor said.

French said the yacht will be treated with dignity befitting its status and restored in full public view. The ship was constructed in 1925 of long-leaf yellow pine, mahogany and teak. French said his company already has been stockpiling wood for the restoration and will try to use sustainable materials, such as the old-growth yellow pines knocked down during a recent storm in Georgia.

“This is a piece of American history. So much stuff has happened on this boat,” French said. “We’re rebuilding it to a standard that will last another 100 years.”

The Sequoia was designed by John Trumpy, a famous wooden yacht designer, and built for Emily Roebling Cadwalader and her husband; it was launched in 1925. Cadwalader was the granddaughter of John Roebling, the chief engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The boat is expected to remain in town until Saturday, according to a news release from the mayor's office, and the public is invited to stop by to see it.

Day Staff Writer John Ruddy contributed to this report.

g.smith@theday.com

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