This week, the remains of the former Presidential yacht Williamsburg began being removed from the yard where she’s been rusting away for decades. It’s the definitive end to the last remaining American Presidential yacht yet to be restored.
According to the Città Della Spezia newspaper in Italy, the Port of La Spezia decided last month that the 243’9” (74.34-meter) Williamsburg should be removed. She’s been lying at the Navalmare shipyard, under its ownership in anticipation of a buyer stepping forward, since 1994. Despite abundant rust, which allowed water to enter her hull at times, the yacht remained structurally sound for some time. Navalmare kept Williamsburg afloat, too, pumping out the water to respect her storied past as much as her hopeful future. Unfortunately, though, last spring Williamsburg suffered a devastating blow. She sank, with her bow settling on the sea bottom. The majority of the superstructure remained above water. However, the overall damage was too severe. This led to the Port of La Spezia reaching its conclusion.
The removal of Williamsburg is expected to take one month. Naturally, navigation and land access to the area will be restricted during that time.
“Significant” in reference to Williamsburg’s past is an understatement. She was launched in 1930 at Maine-based Bath Iron Works, christened Aras. The owner was Hugh Chisholm, a paper and railroad magnate. When the United States became involved in World War II, Aras was acquired by the Navy, converted into a gunboat. She was renamed Williamsburg and served primarily in Iceland through 1945. Upon Japan’s surrender, she was converted back into a yacht and sent to Washington, D.C. to replace Potomac, the then-current Presidential yacht.
Williamsburg served Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, with President Truman using her far more frequently. President Eisenhower decommissioned Williamsburg in 1953, and she was given to the Potomac River Naval Command for continued maintenance. The National Science Foundation acquired her in 1962, converting her into an oceanographic research vessel. This required removing the Presidential staterooms and other luxury touches. As Anton Bruun, she served scientists and researchers alike until 1968.
Later that same year, while she was undergoing repairs in a floating drydock, the platform supporting her suddenly sank. She was a total loss, so the U.S. government auctioned her. A company in New Jersey purchased her for use as a floating restaurant. In 1979 a Washington, D.C. company bought her for the same purpose in the nation’s capital. Plans fell through, however, and Williamsburg was abandoned.
In 1985, a group formed the USS Williamsburg Preservation Society to publicize Williamsburg’s troubles and find a buyer. (Despite some news reports, the organization never purchased her. It was, and remains, purely information-focused, part of the non-profit Historic Naval Ships Association.) Seven years later, the USS Williamsburg Corporation stepped forward, pledging to fund a $65-million restoration and turn her into a boutique charter yacht. The corporation contracted with Valdettaro Shipyard in La Spezia to do the work. A transport ship took Williamsburg to Europe in 1994.
Just before the refit was about to start, the shipyard owner vanished, along with the money. Valdettaro Shipyard and everything in it, including Williamsburg, were placed in receivership following non-payment of other bills. Neither the corporation nor the yard’s craftspeople had enough funds to restart the refit. That’s when Navalmare, located across the bay, acquired her. And, that’s why Williamsburg sat there ever since.
One of the saddest parts of the Williamsburg saga is that the marketing campaigns launched in recent years were too little too late. The classic yacht was listed with a small brokerage house hired by Navalmare through to the early part of this decade. However, our research through the years uncovered no advertising or public-relations efforts. David Seal, a broker currently with Northrop & Johnson, secured the central listing under Camper & Nicholsons about three years ago. Through his own blog, YouTube videos, and more, Seal raised the profile of Williamsburg. (The photo at top is from one of his videos.) Even when he joined Northrop & Johnson, he maintained a personal interest in seeing what he calls “a significant piece of American history” receive a new lease on life.
Several inquiries from highly qualified buyers came in, Seal says. Some of these same potential owners had commissioned major refits themselves, too. So, with all of this, why did the efforts to save Williamsburg fail? “I am pretty sure that the reason nobody was prepared to commit was simply that the Williamsburg presents too many unknown factors,” he told us last year. Coincidentally, that interview took place just a few weeks before the sinking. She had sat in the same position since arriving at Navalmare in 1994. Even knowing the steel superstructure would need replacing with aluminum, there was no way to know the full condition of her hull. That, Seal theorized (perhaps rightfully so), was too much for buyers to think about. “What, from my perspective, offers an opportunity for a rich and fascinating adventure of refitting a significant piece of American history, for others is a scary jump into the unknown,” Seal told us.