USS Potomac

Photo Gallery

I recently received an invitation to join the crew on board the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac for a cruise on the Bay, which I of course accepted! Having seen the Potomac on the Bay every year during Fleet week, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time aboard, and tour this beautiful and historic ship!

USS Potomac is also known as the 'Floating White House', as it was customized for, and used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his Presidential Yacht until his death in 1945. The ship itself had a long and very colorful history. It started out as the Coast Guard Cutter Electra, refitted and recommissioned as FDR's Presidential Yacht, sold and resold time and again in the post FDR years, seized by U.S. customs for drug running, accidentally sunk while docked, raised, auctioned off to the Port of Oakland, painstakingly and lovingly restored to its former glory after intensive lobbying and fund raising efforts, and now cruising the San Francisco Bay as a National Historic Landmark!

USS Potomac is operated by the Potomac Association (a non-profit group), which offers various themed cruises throughout the year. I happened to join them on a 'Characters on the Bay' cruise, which I had no idea what was about beforehand. Turned out to be a most entertaining, fun, and informative cruise, with the 3 hours on board passing in what seemed like a blink of an eye! Here are some of the pictures of the ship, crew, and historical Bay Area characters that so entertained everyone on board that day.
Nikon D300 w/ 18-105mm VR lens - Bernard Zee

The Potomac operates out of Jack London Square, beside the Ferry dock in Oakland, CA.

Used as a Presidential Yacht by FDR, the USS Potomac is also known as the Floating White House.

Originally commissioned as the USCGC Electra in 1934, modifications to the 165 ft ship included addition of a upper boat deck, installation of a hand operated elevator, as well as various internal modifications to accommodate the President.

The Potomac Association operates the USS Potomac and offers cruises on the Bay on scheduled days and occasions. Cruise schedule and reservations can be found at their web site:
If you get there about 40min prior to departure time, you can catch an interesting short show on the history of the USS Potomac.

Being stricken with polio, President FDRs' options for R and R were somewhat limited. What he did like to do was spend his leisure time on the USS Potomac cruising and fishing.

An all steel vessel, the Potomac served as FDR's Presidential Yacht from 1936 till his death in 1945.

I was afforded a very special tour of the historical ship, and got to see just about every nook and cranny! This is the wheel house (or bridge) of the ship where I got to meet some of the crew and Captain of the Potomac.

The ship has 2 engines with direct drives to the propellers. Those 2 shifters put each engine in forward or reverse. I believe the engine needs to be stopped in order to change drive directions.

I was told the wheel of the ship is a bit smaller than the original one, due to clearance issues with additional equipment that had to be installed to bring it up to modern standards.

There were some gauges which showed what angle the rudder was set to, and what angle the rudder was currently at.

Looks like 'Eve' from the movie Wally, but it's actually the ship's compass. The red and green balls can be positioned to compensate for external magnetic influences to allow the compass to read true.

The Captain for the Potomac that day was Hugh James, who like so many other crew members and docents on board, is a volunteer!

A wider look at the wheel house.
The Coast Guard did not want the ship back after FDR's death, and so the ship was decomissioned and sold. Among the many owners was Elvis Presley, who donated the ship to St. Judes Childrens Hospital.

The ship then changed hands a few more times, ending up in South America. On a trip up to California, the Potomac was seized by U.S. customs for drug running. While tied up in impound at Treasure Island, the ship sank after a hole was accidentally knocked in the hull.

This period correct RCA radio and record player is on loan to the Potomac.
After the boat was raised by the Navy, it was put on auction. As a favor the Port of Oakland was asked to start the bid off to get things going. The director put in a bid of $15k, as that was the most he could do without additional approval. Unfortunately, there were no other bids, and the Port of Oakland ended up with the Potomac!

No, this is not an early computer - but rather something called a 'typewriter'. :-)
The Port of Oakland was somewhat at a loss as to what to do with the Potomac, as it was in dire need of repair after being sunk and all. As luck would have it, several concerned individuals got involved - contacted the right people (one of FDRs' son), who went to Washington DC to lobby the then President Reagan to help save the Potomac.

This is another very quaint device used to tap out 'Morse Code'. Not quite binary 1's and 0's, as it has short dashes, long dashes, and spaces in between. That's really old school!
President Reagan was not only sympathetic to the cause, he got Congress to approve an extra half million (more than what was asked for) in matching grants to provide up to $2.5 million dollars towards the restoration of the Potomac.

All this radio equipment was in the ships' radio room (which was about the size of a walk in closet!). So while FDR was on his yacht, he was never out of touch.
After a 9 year, $5 million restoration (and fundraising) effort, the USS Potomac was returned to her former glory and looked just as it did when used as the Presidents' Yacht.

As I mentioned above, I got an extra special tour of the ship. Looking a bit like Oscar in his trashcan (from Sesame Street), Lee Ditlefsen is anything but grouchy as he leads me into the a rarely seen portion of the ship!

Thankfully, I was able to squeeze my XL frame through the access hatch and made it down to the lower level in one piece!
Down in the lowest aft portion of the ship was a manual control station for the twin rudders. It's a backup system in case the bridge controls went out.

There's a phone to the bridge where steering commands can be relayed from. A system of hydraulic pump and actuators assists positioning of the rudders.

It was fun trying to climb out without beating myself or my camera up!
Actually, the ladder wasn't hard - the hard part was at the very top, where there was no further footing, and trying to figure out how to gracefully get out on to the deck! Of course, it would be easier if I lost about 20lbs or so :-)

Here's another part of the ship which is normally not open to tours - the engine room.
Here can be seen the 2 main 440hp Enterprise diesel engines.
These engines are not original to the Potomac, but are of a similar type.

A closer look at the indicators for one of the Enterprise engines.

The engines are a direct reversing diesel, and started by compressed air. This shift lever here mirrors the one at the wheel house, and puts the engine in forward, stop, or reverse.

The engine room also houses a pair of generators to provide electrical power when the main engines are not running.

On the upper boat deck, the Potomac is already under way!

Joining us that day on the cruise was none other than FDR himself!
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was of course, the 32nd President of the United states, who was elected during the Great Depression, engineered the New Deal (where there is still great controversy about), provided aid to Great Britian in the form of Lend-Lease, declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and mobilized the U.S. economy in support of the Allied war effort.

Other VIPs included San Francisco legends like Emperor Norton here.
Emperor Norton was a self proclaimed Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico. Considered a street person, and insane by today's standards - Emperor Norton was a celebrity in the late 1800s of San Francisco. People would invite him into their homes to stay, and accept his (fake) currency as money for goods and services.

Master of ceremonies Ron Ucovich would introduce each character, conduct an interview, and take questions from the audience.

Passengers on board are in good hands with Lee standing by as the EMT crew member.

This is a view I have never seen before - at least not from this elevation.

The Bay bridge carries the bulk of the traffic going into and out of San Francisco. After the '89 Loma Prieta earthquake, where a roadway section of the Bay Bridge at the canteliver portion collapsed, the decision was made to replace the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

Well, more than 20 (TWENTY) years later, the replacement bridge is getting close to completion. Supposed to be done by 2013, at a cost of $6.3 billion. That's only a teeny bit more than the original $780 million estimate...

This celebrated character is Horace Carpentier - the first mayor of Oakland. Somehow elected to office by more votes than the available population of voters, Horace is known for his shady dealings, and finally run out of town (literally) by an angry mob!!

On the upper deck on either side are 4 life/motor boats. 3 out of 4 are there for historical eye candy, and are not actually used.

The Potomac would have so much more useable upper deck space were not for these boats - but then, it would not be historically accurate!

The original ship had 2 functional smoke stacks. When fitted for FDRs' use, the 2nd smoke stack was converted to an elevator - to bring the President up and down the decks of the ship.

During the war, the Potomac played a role in hiding the actual whereabouts of the President. While publicly taking a vacation on his Yacht, the Potomac secretly transfered FDR to a heavy cruiser which brought the President to a meeting with Winston Churchill at Newfoundland.

There, they agreed on the Atlantic Charter, which was a strategy on how to prosecute the war. While the President was at this secret meeting, a Secret Service imposter played the role of the president on board the Potomac until the Presidents' return.

While FDR did use the Potomac for fishing trips and informal political meetings before the war, the Potomac was primarily used as a naval sonar research vessel during WWII.

At the lower deck fantail, wicker furniture matching those of historical photographs can be found.

A detailed look at one of the window frames in the Presidential bedroom.

Here is the room where the President and his Scottish Terrier dog Fala slept. Note the dog pattern on the blanket.

In fact, there's a little dog bed with a toy stuffed Scottie by the wicker chair!

Potomac souvenirs can be purchased at the Saloon.

FDR and a guest can be seen by the wheel house. The various personalities stay in character throughout the cruise, and guest can interact with them like they were talking with the actual historical figure!

An old style Ketch sailboat with the Golden Gate Bridge in the back.

Due to the addition of the top boat deck, the Potomac is a little top heavy, and can roll around a bit in rougher waters. That day was really nice though, and the Bay waters were super calm.

Those swingarms for the lifeboats have got to be the most prominent characteristic of the Potomac.

Those arched arms can be seen from afar, and adds a certain old school charm and elegance to the ship.

As we make a loop around the Bay, we come up upon the Golden Gate Bridge, and go under it.

There's something special about ships going under the bridge, as there is just so much cultural significance, symbolism, and history about it.

As we went past the bridge, the waters almost immediately become alot choppier. Maybe it's psychological! As with all Bay tours, we don't venture much past the bridge, as we turn around and head back into San Francisco Bay.

A bit of dramatic lighting, and a shot unique to the Potomac!

The city of San Francisco is right ahead and a bit to the right.

Down below decks are some additional sleeping quarters. These were perhaps for digitaries or guests, and included a bathroom!

Looks like a mirror, but it's actually an opening to joing 2 different sleeping quarters.

Further forward on the ship, were bunks for the enlisted crew. Not a whole lot of space for personal items or even for sleeping! These were triple level cot beds.

Back up on deck, here's a backlit shot of the US flag with sparkling waters of the Bay behind it.

The false 2nd smoke stack can be seen in this shot. The door opens to the elevator, which has been upgraded to be electric instead of hand pulled.

This character is William Randolph Hurst, the famous newspaper magnate and creator of 'yellow journalism'. I guess the pre-cursor to the Sun and National Enquirer! In California, his legacy includes the Hearst Castle, and the Hacienda at Fort Hunter Liggett.

We get some waves from the Red and White fleet tour boat as they past close by.

Here's the Birdman of Alcatraz interacting with some of the guest on board.

A view of the bow from the upper deck pilot house.

Bridge crew while underway.

We get a nice look at San Francisco as we cruise close to the waterfront.

Another historical WWII ship open to tours is the Jeremiah O'Brien - a Liberty ship used to ferry supplies for the war effort.

On the same pier is the WWII submarine USS Pampanito - a Balao class Fleet submarine. U.s. submarines played a major role in the Pacific during WWII, sinking 4.9 million tons of Japanese mercent vessels, and 700,000 tons of naval ships - including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship, and 11 cruisers. Of the 288 submarines deployed in the war, 52 submarines were lost (48 of those in the Pacific) with a 22% loss rate.

Further East are the docks for the Red and White Fleet boats.

This is of course Pier 39 - one of the must see tourist attractions in San Francisco. On the right can be seen those noisy but adorable Sea Lions - which one day decided to take over portions of the floating docks at Pier 39. They have stayed to become an integral part of the Pier 39 attraction ever since.

This character is Robert Franklin Stroud - otherwise known as the 'Birdman of Alcatraz'. I had heard the name before, but didn't know anything about him, or even why he was called the Birdman. After talking with the Birdman for a bit, I came to learn that he was called the Birdman because he started raising and selling birds when he was at Leavenworth prison. When he was transferred to Alcatraz, he was not allowed any pets or books, and kept pretty much in solitary confinement. While his original sentence was 12 years for manslaughter, his attacks on fellow prisoner and guards, including the killing of a guard earned him a death sentence, which was commuted to life in prison.

The 3 hour cruise included a box lunch, which was nice to be able to get something to eat. Throughout the cruise, Lee and the other docents were always around, and able to answer questions or just chat.

This is Charlie Parkhurst - one of the best stagecoach drivers in the West. He wore an eye patch after being kicked in the head by a horse and losing an eye.

After being held up once, decided that it would never happen again and learnt to be proficient with a six shooter. The next time bandits tried to rob the stagecoach, Charlie shot and killed 3 of them. Charlies' real claim to fame however, came after he died - when the funeral home found out that he was in fact, a she.

Some of the guests were really into it, and had lots of questions for the characters.

This is Lillie Coit. I've actually not heard of her before either, but at least I'm familiar with Coit tower! Lillie Coit was well known as a volunteer firefighter in San Francisco. After pitching in to help fight a fire on Telegraph Hill when she was 15, she became associated with the Engine company and was recognized as an honorary firefighter. Coit tower was named after her and built using funds she left to the city after her death.

We go under the Bay Bridge again, but this time under the Western suspension bridge section.

We spent some time drifting in McCovey Cove close to ATandT Park, home of the San Francisco Giants Baseball team. The Giants stunned everyone by winning the World Series this year, so Giants love has been quite strong in the city!

Some passengers looking on wondering how that place must have been rocking when the World Series was being played there!

We're soon on our way again, with more characters to introduce and interact with.

This is Sarah Winchester, married to William Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. When Oliver and William died, they left Sarah 50% ownership of the Winchester company. Believing that her family was cursed by the ghosts of the people who were killed by Winchester rifles, Sarah moved to California and built a house for her and the spirits. Construction on the house continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In fact, she believed if she ever stopped building, she would die. The resultant house was very large and complex, with doors, and staircases that led nowhere. In fact, it's a popular tourist attraction nowadays called the Winchester Mystery House.

A slight bit of haze in this view of Downtown San Francisco.

Passengers can sign the Guest book and leave comments.

An early Hunter fan. Didn't need to run it though, as the weather was just perfect.

These columns are sort of unique to the Potomac - since the upper deck was a one off construction.

The brass window trimmings were white in the initial restoration. A former crew member of the original Potomac remarked on how he remembered there being more brass in the fantail during one of the cruises. When the crew looked into it some more, they discovered the window edges were indeed brass with paint over it. It was initially hoped that they could salvage the original brass trimmings, but they were too far gone. Hence replacement pieces had to be used.

Looking up at the Wheel House.

The side rails hinged upward to allow boarding or disembarking the ship.

As we neared Oakland, the various characters gathered on the front of the boat for a photoshoot.

Here's FDR with his trademark cig on a stick, followed by Hearst.

Emperor Norton about to draw his sword!

Birdman of Alcatraz standing beside John Muir.

These colorful characters really brought history to life, and made the cruise very entertaining!

From left to right: Horace Carpentier (Dennis Evanosky), Emperor Norton (Bill Hodges), Lillie Coit (Virginia Rapp), Charlie Parkhurst (Elaine Stanley), Jack London (Brad Bunnin), FDR (Kurt Lauridsen), William Randolphh Hearst (Stuart Proffitt), Sarah Winchester (Karen Lyberger), John Muir (LeRoy Hintz), and Birdman of Alcatraz (John Turnier).

We pass by the Mokihana, which plies the waters between California and Hawaii - Mostly carrying cars and personal belongings of the Military families going to, or leaving Hawaii.

The Potomac is of course, dwarfed by the size of the cargo ship.

Marti Burchell is the executive director of the Potomac Association, here saying a few words about the Potomac and her crew.

Port of Oakland uses these huge cranes to quickly load and unload container ships.

The Lightship Relief is another ship docked at Jack London Square. A former Coast Guard vessel, lightships were used in places where lighthouses were impractical.

Some nice smiles from a couple of lovely ladies.

Meanwhile, the crew is working hard to tie up the Potomac to the dock.

The characters gather on the rails to say goodbye to the departing guests.

I must say everyone did a fantastic job, adding their own personal flair to bring their characters to life!

Guests were all smiles as they waved their goodbyes. Like me, I'm sure they had a great time aboard.

So if you're ever in the area, and want to sample a bit of history - give the Potomac a call!