Politicians who sail may be vulnerable to complaints that the sport seems expensive and elitist. But there were two presidents in the last century who were serious sailors, and both succeeded in weaving the pastime into their political identities.
At age 9, in 1891, Franklin D. Roosevelt was taken by his father, James, aboard his 51-foot sailboat Half Moon down the Hudson and then up the New England coast to the family’s summer cottage in Canada, on Campobello Island in New Brunswick. By 16, Franklin was commanding his own sloop, the New Moon, and navigating the island’s fabled tides. He absorbed himself in naval history (including that of his own family) and started amassing a large collection of naval prints. With an interest in the sea that was central to his vision of himself, he persuaded the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, to make him assistant secretary of the Navy.
After Roosevelt was nominated for president in 1932, he set sail on a well-photographed New England cruise with his own sons on the 37-foot yawl Myth II, calling himself “an ancient mariner” and posing at the wheel. When he told reporters about why he liked sailing, he unwittingly conveyed part of his approach to political leadership, saying that the fun of the sport was that “if you’re headed for somewhere and the wind changes, you just change your mind and go somewhere else.”
Credit FDR Presidential Library and Museum
It was not by accident that Roosevelt chose to make his first major appearance after the Democratic convention at the helm of a boat. He had been dealing with polio for more than a decade, and though it was shrewdly disguised, he could not walk without heavy braces. As Robert F. Cross recalls in “Sailor in the White House” (Naval Institute Press, 2003), he knew there would be whispers that his physical challenges would keep him from serving effectively, and it would be politically useful for him to be viewed as active and in command.
Roosevelt used his affinity for sailing to help create the image he enjoyed of himself as an imposing national captain. Throughout his time in office, he often appeared aboard various vessels with his black naval cape flapping dramatically in the breeze. Not long after he was sworn in, Americans could buy a clock mounted in the center of a miniature ship’s wheel gripped by a replica of a standing Roosevelt, featuring the legend “F.D.R. The Man of the Hour.” A similar product was labeled “Captain of the Ship of State.”
In July 1936, after his nomination for re-election, Roosevelt reprised his earlier success by taking the schooner Sewanna for another New England sailing adventure with his sons. The following month, a 19-year-old John F. Kennedy made his first appearance in The New York Times, sailing his 22-foot sloop Flash II in a 10-mile race on Moriches Bay, Long Island. (After being owned by various others, the Flash II was impounded in 2004 by the Drug Enforcement Administration after its owner had been sentenced to prison for marijuana trading; an auction last spring, with a $100,000 reserve price, failed to draw bidders.)
During summers in Hyannis Port, Mass., the young Jack Kennedy and his siblings had been strongly encouraged by their father, Joseph, to take up the sport. At 15, he named a vessel his father gave him Victura, which, he noted, meant “about to conquer.” (The Victura is now displayed outside Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library.) He later recalled that when World War II approached, he was “interested in joining the Navy” because he had “spent a lot of time in boats.”
When the 29-year-old Kennedy entered politics after the war, he showed no conspicuous anxiety about whether being seen piloting a sailboat might give fodder to critics who dismissed him as a rich man’s son. On the contrary, such nautical images might subtly remind people that he had won a Purple Heart as a naval war hero in the South Pacific. As James W. Graham notes in “Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat and the Sea” (ForeEdge, 2014), his brother Edward would make the link between the two subjects by arguing that Jack’s sailing background had been “absolutely indispensable” in helping him to save the lives of PT-109’s crew.
More than Roosevelt, and perhaps encouraged by his example, Kennedy allowed sailing to become an important part of his political image. Like Roosevelt, he was eager to divert attention from his physical infirmities — which included a badly injured back and Addison’s disease — with displays of public vigor.
In July 1953, a Life magazine cover had Kennedy smiling from the Victura with his soon-to-be wife, Jacqueline, who, despite her grin, did not share her husband’s ardor for the pastime. She later told a friend, “They just shoved me into that boat long enough to take the picture.” After her husband was nominated for president in 1960, he was back at Hyannis Port and about to board the Victura with his wife when she told a visitor, “I wish that I didn’t have to go on this corny sail.”
Emulating Roosevelt, Kennedy surrounded himself with ship models and naval prints when he became president. At Newport, R.I., in September 1962, after watching an America’s Cup race (in the presence of the 18-year-old future secretary of state John Kerry, a family friend), he gave a poetic dinner speech, saying, “When we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.” But Kennedy’s sailing was not always on political message. That same summer, he was angry about a story that carried this headline in The Times: “President and Family Run Aground in Sloop.”
However, for Kennedy, as with Roosevelt, the deeper significance of sailing was not politics but at least a momentary escape from the crushing pressures of the presidency, even if such serenity could be only in his own imagination. At the White House, during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the president created a pencil picture of a sailboat while advisers talked about the imminent danger of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
His staff later found another such sketch on a small piece of paper from Houston’s Rice Hotel. It was drawn by Kennedy during the last 20 hours of his life, when he was dealing with contentious Texas politicians, starting with his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, during a trip to their state.