WASHINGTON — When he first moved to Washington in 1982, Kim Nielsen lived aboard a houseboat at Columbia Island Marina with a Sunfish sailboat moored astern. Evenings and weekends when the breeze was fair, he would ghost down the Potomac on the little day-sailer, wondering from the water at the monuments of the nation's history visible all along the shore.
One that lured him for repeated visits was the whitewashed 243-foot hull of a once-grand ship, sagging against its lines at the dock of the Blue Plains Treatment Plant. It was, Nielsen discovered, the Williamsburg, once the presidential yacht of Harry S. Truman.
Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, among other statesmen, had trod its decks and debated in its salon the fate of postwar Europe. The Williamsburg had carried the President to naval reviews and coastal cruises and served, during the long Key West vacations he favored in those days before Air Force One, as both a movable command center and a floating White House.
A Coast Guardsman before he became chief of photography for the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler museums, Nielsen had a feel for ships and their history and was saddened to see the yacht as the derelict and peeling focal point of an ill-fated restaurant scheme for the Georgetown waterfront. There were plans to slice off its top, flood it with water and drag it under the Memorial and 14th Street bridges to a new career.
"I couldn't believe we would treat such a piece of history like that," Nielsen said the other day en route to visit the ship again. "People come into the Smithsonian and get excited about George Washington's teeth! And yet we were treating this much more meaningful relic of our recent past like a piece of trash."
Little did he know.
Today the Williamsburg appears headed for the scrap heap. The District of Columbia, which has allowed the yacht dock space at Blue Plains for the last eight years, says it is in the way. Pete Hall, manager of Salisbury Towing Co. on the Chesapeake Bay, says that in the name of the District government he has been looking for two years for a yard that will take the ship.
"The problem is, she's not worth very much where she is," Hall said. "That channel (to the Blue Plains dock) is silted up and it would be hard to get her out of there. It would cost something like $5,000 to tow her to Norfolk or Baltimore to scrap, and she's not worth much more than that for the metal once you got her there. There are old ships like her all over the place."
Well, Hall concedes, not exactly.
Launched in 1931 in Bath, Me., as the $2-million plaything of pulp and paper magnate Hugh J. Chisholm, the Williamsburg was one of the last great yachts of the prewar era. Then known as the Aras, it was almost as long as a football field and had nearly the tonnage of a destroyer: a plutocrat's vision in black-hulled steel, teak trim and mirror-polished brass. Its diesel engines could push it at 16 knots over a cruising range of 7,500 miles. Its six lifeboats were launches of varnished mahogany, with the name Aras in gold leaf on their sterns. Each member of the 30-man crew was furnished with three different uniforms.
Chisholm cruised the Atlantic Coast and planned to take the yacht around the world, but before he did World War II broke out and the Navy commandeered the ship to help bolster the Atlantic fleet. Renamed the Williamsburg and fitted out with depth charges and three-inch guns, it helped escort Britain-bound convoys on the U-boat-haunted North Atlantic between New York and Iceland.
Meanwhile, the Navy had advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt that his favorite yacht, a 165-foot former Coast Guard cutter named the Potomac, had become dangerously top-heavy with the addition of heavy communications equipment. A keen and lifelong sailor, F.D.R. had use of the shallow-draft 102-foot Sequoia (where Richard M. Nixon later sheltered from the woes of Watergate), but had found the larger vessel more suited both to his wheelchair and to the oceangoing voyages he favored. At the war's end, the Navy offered the Williamsburg to Truman, his successor.
For all its aristocratic beginnings, the Williamsburg as a presidential yacht assumed the unpretentious character of its chief passenger, the former haberdasher from Independence, Mo. Though its rope-worked gangway railings and gleaming brightwork remained showpieces of shipkeeping, its artificial fireplaces and slipcovered armchairs struck one reporter at the time as reminiscent of those in a contemporary commercial hotel.
Asked where the furniture had come from, one of the officers on the Williamsburg's shakedown cruise as a yacht replied: "Oh, some of us just picked it up here and there in department stores and places."