President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Overlooked Solo Sailing Adventure

By Kenneth T. Simendinger ©

In early summer of 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — exhausted after his legendary “Hundred Days” — decided to vacation by sailing solo in a chartered yacht up the fickle New England coast to his family’s 40-room “retreat“ at Campobello Island, which is actually in Canada.

He left a Depression-depressed Washington by train on June 17th, hollow-eyed from fatigue, and got off in Boston where a crowd of a quarter million cheered him as he rode slowly in an open car through the city. This was just months after Chicago Mayor Cermak, sitting next to FDR in another open car in Florida, took a bullet meant for the newly-elected Roosevelt, and died soon after. The President was driven from the train to the famed Groton prep school, for a brief reunion with student sons Franklin and John, and an inevitable impromptu speech, then on to Marion, Massachusetts, on Buzzard’s Bay.

Awaiting him there was the fitted-out forty-five-foot schooner Amberjack II. [Eldest son Jimmy had chartered her well beforehand.] The President took the helm and, alone and in foul weather, creditably found his way into Nantucket Harbor, as could be attested by a following fleet

that included: a press ketch [commandeered by four wire service correspondents and their equipment], plus crew, which left four byline reporters and their gear briefly on the dock before the emergency charter of the Mary Alice, which also followed the fleet; a Secret Service patrol launch; two U.S. Navy destroyers, the 10,000-ton heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis, and occasional naval aircraft.

Roosevelt sailed up past Martha’s Vineyard, where he was signaled to hove to briefly for an emergency visit by a White House aide with a message; then on to Provincetown and then to Gloucester, where political friends briefly came aboard; then up the Maine coast and into Penobscot Bay. On Sunday, June 25, he sent a message to the State Department, for re-transmittal to London, to caution his spokesman — at impending momentous London talks on gold -not to talk to the press.

Eleanor Roosevelt came aboard the Amberjack briefly at Southwest Harbor, en route by car with some women friends to open the “cottage” at Campobello before her husband’s arrival. Soon after, the President was back at sea but delayed by fog and forced to lay up in a Maine cove for two days. While thus at anchor, the President learned that the value of the American dollar had slipped again, which had the Europeans frantic that they might have to abandon gold.

By June 28th the befogged Roosevelt telegraphed Washington, for re-transmission to his London team, that he didn’t think it mattered to the United States whether any of the countries petitioning him abandoned gold, and stated he had no faith in France’s ability to stay on gold anyway, and that international stabilization proposals would prove ineffectual, and should be resisted. Then he turned back to the fog, now closer at hand.

On the morning of Thursday June 29th Roosevelt decided — fog or no fog — to press on, and upped anchor. In ten hours, which must have exasperated his following fleet, the President threaded his way through mists and tricky waters and sailed as if by magic into brilliant sunshine in Passamaquoddy Bay. Crowds from Campobello and surrounding communities cheered. The amazed cruiser Indianapolis blasted off a 21-gun salute and dozens of yachts and thousands of people lining the shore saluted his safe arrival at Campo. He had not been there since he was stricken with polio.

Politician through and through, the President was helped ashore and then gave an impromptu speech from the terrace of the yacht club. Then he was taken by Secret Service men up to the “cottage” which Eleanor and her friends had just opened.

The next day, Friday June 30th, the Roosevelts held a picnic on the beach below their lodgings, for about a hundred people. Afterwards, while FDR was awaiting a top-priority cable from London then being decoded on the Indianapolis, the four reporters from the Mary Alice — who had come to his rescue aboard the very dry Amberjack II with an emergency ration of bourbon — were asked to come up and join FDR for lunch.

None the worse for his single-handed sail, President Roosevelt settled into a game of cards with his reporter-guests, fitted a cigarette into its holder, lit up, and casually began telling them — on background [they could not quote him] — how he was about to shatter the pretenses of London gold conference attendees by announcing that his Administrationwould not subscribe to any arrangement that would curtail American economic recovery or facilitate foreign dumping in the United States.

Realizing how sensational FDR’s exclusive would be, the four reporters wondered how they could break the story on their own bylines, without a top official to substantiate it. The President blithely advised them to simply trust that the dateline CAMPOBELLO would say all that was needed. Having overwhelmed these four top White House correspondents with the scoop of their dreams, FDR then looked at his watch, reminded his guests that Campobello had vast tidal changes, and they had best hurry back to their yacht and be off.

This they did, with each correspondent cross-checking with his peers on each word of the story he proposed to file, thus bearing witness, and they immediately instructed the crew manning their yacht to take them directly to the nearestWestern Union office. Their un-attributed stories would make world headlines.

By then, FDR was convening a cocktail party for guests who included FDR’s political operative Louis Howe, plus Henry Morgenthau, and his right-hand secretary Missy Le Hand. Guests later reported another instance of Eleanor openly henpecking her husband.

At about midnight on the same long day — June 30th — Roosevelt sent out to his waiting 10,000-ton cruiser a message for re-transmission to Washington, and then to London, that caused another sensation that would ripple through international finance centers and become legend.

On July 2d, Roosevelt boarded the Indianapolis, his standard was unfurled, another satisfying 21-gun salute was delivered, and off they went toward Annapolis, Maryland. In the captain’s cabin, the President wrote out a message that read in part:

“I would regard it as a catastrophe amounting to world tragedy if the great conference of nations . . . [were to] allow itself to be diverted by the proposal of a purely artificial and temporary experiment affecting the monetary exchange of a few nations only.”

Europe was outraged which, truth be known, may have provided the new American president with quiet satisfaction.

In the midst of a great and still-gathering Depression, with the world economy falling to pieces, it seems scarcely possible that a sitting President could seclude himself at the wheel of a picturesque schooner and sail off into fog banks for days at a time, alone, while making up his mind on America’s future financial policy, and much else, then go ashore and set the world’s financial centers on their collective ear.

That was single-handed sailing of a higher order.