- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

ST. MICHAELS, Md. — Lyndon B. Johnson converted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s elevator to a minibar. John F. Kennedy Jr. carved a hinged opening in a bedroom door so he could receive messages in the presidential suite without being disturbed.

Richard Nixon, the president who spent by far the most time on this floating hideaway, carefully concealed a tiny camera in the main dining room.

Now the formerUSS Sequoia, the 78-year-old former presidential yacht, is moored on the Eastern Shore for a different kind of renovations.

At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., apprentices are tearing into the wooden hull of the John Trumpy-designed, 104-foot motor yacht. It’s an extensive overhaul, $50,000 worth of work that museum officials say would cost far more at a commercial boatyard.

The Coast Guard will inspect the work, which is set to finish early next month. The boat must meet federal regulations now that it’s privately owned and available for charter — $10,000 for a four-hour cruise.

The goal is to keep afloat the majestic vessel, a National Historic Landmark used by every president from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter sold the ship in 1977, and it went through several owners before being taken over by the Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group in Washington.

Each day for five weeks, the apprentices working under boat builder Mike Vlahovich fan out on docks and floating decks surrounding the yacht. They are prying more than 100 feet of old planking off the hull and repairing the frames underneath.

Partway through the job, new, raw wood was visible, and tourists leaning over a waist-high barrier could see through the skin of the boat to its insides. They’re not allowed on board, but a sign with color photographs tells them what’s going on.

“It’s nice they’re going to restore it, because you couldn’t build anything like that today,” said Bill Atkins, a visitor from Ringwood, N.J., who asked the boat builders what screws they were boring into the hull. Stainless steel, they answered.

“It’s not a throwaway. It’s something to be kept, to be preserved,” said his wife, Jean.

The boat builders said they had paused to look inside the grand, old yacht, but weren’t distracted from the intense work that filled their days. One wrong cut, and a precious plank — cut from Douglas firs in Oregon and shipped cross-country — would be wasted.

On a recent weekday, two workers sanded rails on the cream-colored upper deck, where Mr. Johnson liked to watch movies projected onto the smokestack.

A few yards away was the presidential bathroom, also renovated by Mr. Johnson, who didn’t like stooping in the shower and had the floor of the stall lowered three inches. He didn’t like the small knobs on the doors either, and replaced them with large handles.

Roosevelt added a fishing deck to the back of the boat, and Harry S. Truman brought the piano on board. Kennedy’s mattress is still on the bed in the presidential suite. It’s firm, to help support his bad back.

There are framed photographs of historic events aboard the Sequoia, from Mr. Nixon’s meetings with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to Mr. Johnson’s telephone conferences with legislators drafting civil rights laws. There’s a shot of Dick Cheney (now vice president) and Donald H. Rumsfeld (now defense secretary) at a party with Mr. Nixon during his administration.

A menu from Kennedy’s last birthday dinner, thrown on the Sequoia, is framed.

There are also eerie, personal leftovers of presidents past. A photo of Jackie Kennedy hangs in a dark corner of the presidential suite. Resting on the Sequoia’s teak deck with Caroline, she’s pregnant with a baby who died just days later following a premature birth.

Another picture shows Roosevelt waving to photographers from the deck. He grips the railing tightly, his arm bearing his weight.

The dining table in the main salon is scarred from a Truman temper tantrum during a poker game. He grabbed a letter opener and dragged it across the top.

Workers pass by all of this as they trek through the cabins. They look down, careful to walk on sheets of cardboard laid out to protect carpet emblazoned with the U.S. presidential seal. It was a gift from France.

“At the end of the day, I’m more likely to start thinking about, ‘Oh, it’s a presidential yacht,’” said second-year apprentice Bob Savage. “That’s pretty cool, too.”

The workers are more apt to wax philosophical about perpetuating their craft than about safeguarding the yacht’s history.

“This is preserving Bay heritage in a way that keeping something under glass can’t do,” said Mr. Vlahovich, the boatyard manager and a boat builder of 32 years. “We’re maintaining a craft. It doesn’t need to be photographed or written about. You’re passing it along to someone who can carry it on.”

The apprentices sweating over their work may never enjoy a Potomac River breeze on a luxury cruise, but they remain dedicated, Mr. Vlahovich said.

“This is a page of the Sequoia’s history that isn’t going to see the front page of the paper, I don’t think, but it has an integrity to it that compares to anything else that happened on this vessel.”

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