Inside Angle: POTUS Afloat

Inside Angle: POTUS Afloat

I visited the newly refitted presidential yacht Honey Fitz in Palm Beach recently. Like Caitlyn Jenner, the boat’s been through a lot over the years but she’s looking damn fine now. And while the Honey Fitz is certainly among the most famous presidential yachts, she made me curious to unearth the goods on every other United States presidential yacht. Between government theft, a Nobel prize and recurring proximity to assassinations, these boats have stories.

George Washington had a fleet of boats, but none were ever expressly designated presidential material. So, we begin with the 181-foot sidewheel steamer River Queen in 1865. Abraham Lincoln met with Generals Grant and Sherman aboard her to map out the waning days of the Civil War. Lincoln liked the vessel so much that he cruised aboard her two days before his assassination. (There’s a theme here. Keep reading.)

USS Despatch was the first official presidential yacht, though. In 1886 the 167-foot tender ferried President Grover Cleveland to the dedication and unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Unlike Jenner, there’s no word on whether Lady Liberty had changed her pronouns during the long voyage to the New World.

USS Despatch

USS Dolphin came next. She carried President William McKinley during the naval review following ceremonies dedicating the aforementioned Grant’s Tomb in New York City in 1897. We all know who’s buried there. Julia. And her husband.

Next, USS Mayflower was a 275-foot yacht that went on to serve a variety of military roles. She was the presidential yacht for five presidents: Roosevelt through Coolidge. She also served as a warship and was one of the only ships to have served in both the Israeli and United States navies. Aboard her President Theodore Roosevelt held the peace conference which ended the Russo-Japanese War, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize.

USS Sylph was a steel-hulled 152-foot steam yacht that in 1902 began alternating with first Dolphin then Mayflower as the presidential yacht for Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. USS Potomac, built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin played a decoy role while Franklin Roosevelt held a covert conference to launch the Atlantic Charter.

USS Sequoia is the former presidential yacht used during the Hoover through Carter administrations. “The Sequoia is probably the most significant artifact of presidential importance that is in private hands,” according to the Mystic Seaport Museum. Setting a cost-cutting example, Jimmy ordered her sold in 1977. An exercise in error correction, Sequoia was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Honey Fitz was built for Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery and was soon swiped by the Feds. Historians tell us the 1942 government seizure of Avery’s prized 92-foot wooden yacht, then named Lenore after his daughter, was retaliation for his harsh and public criticism of the New Deal.

USS Williamsburg was a 244-foot US Navy gunboat that had been a private yacht and served two presidents from 1945 to 1953, Truman and “I Like Ike”. But Eisenhower found the superyacht “too rich” for his blood and invested $200,000 to refit the much smaller Lenore.

USS Williamsburg

JFK renamed the smaller vessel Honey Fitz and spent summer weekends and holidays aboard the yacht in Newport and Palm Beach. Jackie Kennedy threw a surprise birthday party for him on board just a few months before he, too, was assassinated. (I’m sensing a pattern.)

Bush 41 had a need for speed and preferred to rip around in his 28-foot Cigarette Fidelity. When a passenger quipped to the prez that “there are more than two positions on that throttle,” a secret service agent nearby said, “Welcome to my world.”

And then there’s Trump, who bought the 282-foot Nabila after her first owner defaulted on a loan in 1987. Not a yachtsman, Trump leveraged the vessel for PR and business purposes until 1991 when he shed the asset to cover a little debt. Thankfully, no more presidents were harmed by any connection to this “pre-presidential” yacht. And I’m guessing he’s keeping his pronouns.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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