20 Feb JFK, the sailing President
“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.”
– President John F. Kennedy speaking at the America’s Cup in Newport, RI in 1962.
Before John F. Kennedy was President of the United States – indeed, before he met Jacqueline Onassis, before he was a U.S. senator, a Congressman, a Naval hero, a Harvard graduate – he was first a sailor. It could be argued that for JFK sailing was not only his first love, it was the love of his life.
He began sailing at a young age with his family. As a racer JFK won several events, including the Nantucket Sound Star Class Championship Cup in 1936, and the MacMillan Cup and East Coast Collegiate Championships in 1938. Even as president, he took time to sail in the waters off Hyannis, Palm Beach, and on the Potomac. For JFK sailing was a respite, a way to (at least temporarily) escape the heavy burdens of his office.
JFK owned many boats, but one boat remained his favorite throughout his too brief life. On his 15th birthday, his father Joseph Kennedy gave him a 25 foot Wianno Senior, a classic wooden gaff-rigged sloop made nearby on Cape Cod. JFK named her Victura, Latin for “about to conquer” – fitting for a young man with big dreams. He went on to other, larger boats – most notably the Sparkman & Stephens designed S/Y Manitou, and the Presidential motor yacht Honey Fitz – but it was Victura that captured and held his imagination and his heart.
JFK enjoyed sailing Victura for her simplicity, ease of handling and performance. It was on Victura that he taught Jackie and his children Caroline and John Jr. to sail. There are many photos of the Kennedy family and JFK sailing Victura, and in those pictures there’s no mistaking the huge grin on his face. It is the smile of a man who loved his boat and loved sailing it. Friends said that he often told them he was never happier than at the helm of Victura.
Even as president, sailing and Victura were never far from his thoughts. He famously doodled pictures of sailboats during cabinet discussions of the Cuban missile crisis. On November 21, 1963, JFK and Jackie arrived in Houston during a 2 day swing through Texas to shore up Democratic support for the 1964 election. The presidential couple spent a few hours in a suite at the Rice Hotel preparing for a speech that night.
The next day, hotel staff were cleaning the suite when they learned JFK had been shot in Dallas. In the trash, they found a simple pencil drawing of a sailboat that looked much like Victura, beating through the waves.
The Kennedy family kept Victura and sailed her for almost 50 years. Today, Victura stands on the lawn of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, with her bow facing out to sea. A moving and fitting tribute to our sailing President.
Did you enjoy this? Here’s another piece of sailing history you might like: A Shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day