Sailing Was More Than A Presidential Respite

For two presidents, Kennedy and Roosevelt, sailing offered more than leisurely pastime.

John F. Kennedy, sailing in the 1950s, in a photograph taken by a friend, Michael Butler, who had not authorized its distribution before now.Michael Butler

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.”