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BELFAST, Maine — Hundreds gathered on the waterfront Monday to watch as the Sequoia, the grand former presidential yacht, was barged into the harbor for repairs.
The National Historic Landmark, often called “the floating White House,” was built in 1925 and hosted many heads of state in its heyday. But it fell on rough times in recent years, including being the subject of a six-year legal battle over its ownership. At one low point, it was even occupied by a family of raccoons.
But none of that mattered to bystanders, who were armed with binoculars, cameras and smiles as the yacht approached shore. A few climbed into the rigging of a sailboat moored in the harbor to get a bird’s-eye view of the ship’s approach. Some played hooky from their jobs in order to see the boat land. Others simply waited for hours in the October sunshine to cheer as politicians made speeches and the Belfast Area High School band played “Hail to the Chief” to welcome the vessel to the city.
“It’s very, very cool,” Bob Huber of Wiscasset said. “It’s a national landmark. A national treasure. It’s a piece of history, and it should not be allowed to rot into the ground.”
Safe to say, it won’t. The yacht’s new owner is the Equator Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity investment firm, that has contracted with Belfast boat builder Todd French to do a yearslong stern-to-bow restoration to bring it back to its former glory.
French, owner of French & Webb in Belfast, told the crowd that the Sequoia will be rolled to the parking lot on the waterfront side of his company’s Front Street building. He intends to build a structure around the yacht with windows so people can watch as the restoration — which may take as long as four years — is done.
“It feels amazing,” he said just before the official welcome, adding that it was great to see all the people lined up on the waterfront as the ship came in. “I want to pinch myself.”
Some in the crowd had already been on board the Sequoia, which served as the official yacht for presidents from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford. Barry Crawford of Monroe, was in the Air Force undergoing speech therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 1970, when he and others at the hospital were invited to go on a trip on the Sequoia. He joined wounded veterans, including a talented guitar player who had lost an arm in Vietnam but still managed to play songs on the deck of the ship with the help of another veteran.
“One strummed, and one picked,” Crawford said. “It was a very emotional time.”
Matt Heskett, who works in Belfast, said he was walking around the city on his day off when he stumbled on the crowd at the harbor.
“This is pretty cool,” he said. “I’ve seen photos of all the ship launchings from 100 years ago, and it’s the same. All the people watching a ship. It’s good to see.”
Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders echoed that thought in the remarks he made to the crowd.
“The shipbuilding ghosts of Belfast’s storied past must be watching from high above today,” he said.
If they were, they likely saw that from a distance, the Sequoia seemed jaunty, perched high on the barge like a proud emissary from another time. But up close, the ship showed its age through worn paint, old wood and rusty railings — ready to be rejuvenated, according to Sen. Erin Herbig (D-Belfast).
“The Sequoia provided a break for presidents who carried the weight of the world on their shoulders,” she said. “Evidently, she comes here to take a break and get restored — and how lovely is that.”