HMS Friday – A Patriot’s Guide to Presidential Ocean Oddities

by Mark Lukach

“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”

–John F. Kennedy


To honor this most patriotic of all American weekends, I thought it only fitting to highlight the unique relationship that some of our most powerful and famous Americans have had with the ocean.

Obviously this list is not complete…it’s mostly just a fun way to think of the presidents, past and present, and how they have interacted with the ocean in bizarre and memorable ways.

Happy Independence Day!

  • When JFK was assassinated in Dallas, his body was brought to Washington in a bronze casket. But when he was buried at Arlington Cemetery, the body was in a mahogany casket. No one knew what happened to the bronze casket, and collectors were rabid to find it. In 1999, released secret documents revealed that the bronze casket had been dropped into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Maryland, two years after the president’s assassination.
  • In 1919, the U.S.S. George Washington, which was ferrying President Woodrow Wilson back from the peace negotiations at Versailles, was enveloped in a dense fog off the coast of Massachusetts. Unbeknownst to the ship’s captain, the George Washington was heading right towards Thacher Island, which lay hidden in the fog. The quick actions of a lighthouse assistant, who scurried to the lighthouse to blast warnings of the island’s presence, narrowly prevented the ship from wrecking. (Also aboard the George Washington was then-Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
  • In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was then serving as president) approved plans to build dams across the bay in Eastport, Maine, a harbor that typically sees tidal swings of up to 20 feet. The idea was to tap into that tremendous flow of water and harness the tidal energy, making him the first president to consider an alternative energy source that is currently under exploration. The cost and uncertainty as to the efficacy of the plan ended up shutting the project down before it even started.

  • In 1790, a Rhode Island-based engineer named Jacob Isaaks claimed to have created a mixture that, when added to ocean water, removed the salt, and thus made the water potable. His idea received such popular attention that even President George Washington, accompanied by his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, met with Isaaks to review his invention. Jefferson brought the mixture back to the state department, and sent some of it to Philadelphia, where two separate tests confirmed that Isaaks’ mixture was ineffective.
  • The Civil War was bad for the American whaling business. Confederate boats attacked American whalers, who fled to international waters…which came with its own set of problems. At the request of the whaling industry, President Abraham Lincoln took to writing letters for American whaling ships, asking for safe passage for the boats once in international waters. There are very few remaining letters of this type in existence, which are considered very rare and valuable to collectors.
  • This sure is an odd one. At the beginning of his second term in office, President Grover Cleveland noticed a large tumor on the roof of his mouth. Cancer was largely stigmatized at the time, so he decided to have his emergency surgery in secret. Using the guise of a fishing vacation, he boarded the yacht of a friend, where several doctors were waiting for him, and they performed the surgery using cocaine as an anesthetic, which was common practice at the time. So when you boil it down, you could basically say that we had a president, on a yacht, in secret, with cocaine.

Barack Obama bodysurfing Sandy Beach in Hawaii, from

  • It became a viral video sensation when then-candidate Barack Obama went to Hawaii and was videoed bodysurfing at Sandy Beach. I’ll admit it, I thought it was sweet.
  • In 1969, Richard Nixon purchased Cotton Point, a ranch perched on the cliffs in San Clemente, CA, as his vacation home. It became known as the Western White House, as Nixon flew out in Air Force One to a nearby airbase and helicoptered to the private home, where he spent most of the time working.
  • George Bush Sr. was a bomber pilot in World War II, and on September 2, 1944, after a bombing raid, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He and his men bailed out of the plane. Bush was wounded in the head when he hit the tail of the plane on the way out, but managed to crash safely into the ocean, where he floated for hours until a nearby submarine picked him up. He worked about the submarine for a month until he was returned to the San Jacinto aircraft carrier to resume his duties as a pilot.
  • Yes, I know that Ben Franklin was never the president of the country. But he was a pivotal American none-the-less, and as a bodysurfer, I can’t help but to publicly acknowledge his contributions to ocean-borne technology. Ben Franklin, inventor of the bifocals and huge fan of Parisian women, was the first to invent swim fins. Franklin’s fins, made out of wood, actually went on the swimmer’s hands, instead of the feet like today’s fins. He was an avid swimmer, and as a kid, dreamed of becoming a sailor. He even recorded several descriptions for proper swim stroke technique.
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