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A PORTSIDE GAM Escape To The Bay
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Travel Writer

The next time you feel the need to escape from the heat and foul air of the central valley in the summer, or the chilling cold of the winter, consider a drive to the Bay Area for a cruise and some sightseeing. There are plenty of similar, expensive cruises, but the most reasonably priced, unique, and rewarding is on the U.S.S. Potomac, once used by FDR as his "floating White House."

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking one of the extended cruises offered by the Potomac Association, the non-profit organization that salvaged, restored, and now operates this once proud presidential yacht that is now docked near Jack London Square in Oakland. The Association, which raised the $5 million needed to restore the vessel, has slowly increased the number of cruises and activities since putting it back in service in 1995.

The process of restoring the ship began in 1983 when a Congressional grant of $2.5 million was received but the Association had to raise funds to match it. Actual work on the Potomac began in March, 1985 and 10 years and countless hours of volunteer work later, the yacht made its maiden voyage from the dock at Jack London Square. It's now yours to enjoy.

The history of the Potomac is as checkered and fascinating as a tale of fiction. Originally built in 1934 as the Coast Guard cutter Electra, it was converted into a yacht by FDR and commissioned as a U.S. Navy vessel in 1936. Roosevelt spent many days on the ship, most of them at work, until WWII broke out, and his time was needed to run the war effort.

Following Roosevelt's death in April, 1945 the Potomac began a long and ignominious decline from her former role in world affairs. It was briefly used again as a Coast Guard cutter, then went to Maryland for about 10 years. Next, it was a ferry between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before coming to the west coast to be an attraction at the Seattle World Fair.

When this effort failed, it was about to be junked when a good Samaritan stepped in. Thanks to generosity of Elvis Presley, it was saved, and after owning it for a couple of years he donated it to Danny Thomas to be auctioned off for the benefit of St. Jude's Children's Hospital.

The story grows darker as owners used it for a variety of nefarious enterprises, and it was eventually seized as a front for drug smuggling in 1980. She was impounded by the DEA at Treasure Island where a storm tide sank the 165-foot ship. The Navy re-floated the ship two weeks later and sold her at an auction for $15,000 to the only bidder, the Port of Oakland.

The Port of Oakland along with FDR's eldest son James spearheaded a cooperative effort with organized labor, maritime corporations, and dedicated volunteers to complete the restoration. Today, the U.S.S. Potomac has dozens of History Cruises on San Francisco Bay, and it is the most interesting and educational way to escape from the valley and enjoy the bay area.

The passengers on my sold out Angel Island cruise were especially excited to discover that Ewell Howser, the host of the PBS travel series California Gold, was aboard filming a special about the Potomac. The affable Howser said he has been doing the travel gig for over 20 years, but has only seen 80 of the 280 State Parks. The Potomac episode is slated to be shown sometime in January, 2009, according to 'informed sources.'

In addition to dockside tours on most Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, there are a number of history cruises from May through November, Angel Island cruise tours, and special events such as Fleet Week, Veteran's Day, and others. For full details, call 510-627-1215 or go on line at

My cruise was the last of the year to Angel Island, the often ignored but historically important 'other island' in the bay, as Alcatraz gets all the ink, it seems. The Angel Island cruise also features a lengthy tram tour of the entire island that was once known as the 'Ellis Island of the west.'

The interesting Visitor Center not only exhibits a wealth of information about the history of this important island, but also shows a well-crafted 50 minute video. In springtime, the wild flowers add a lovely touch of color to the hillsides. You can also hike, bike, or camp there, as it is a California State Park.

Today, Angel Island is one of the most accessible yet least used recreation areas in the Bay Area. In addition to the Potomac cruises, there are also ferries from Tiburon, Pier 41 in San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda that will provide a scenic ride at a reasonable cost.

Dick Griffin is an area resident who writes about regional tourist destinations. For more information about day trips around northern California, overnight tours, and money saving tips for those who travel on a budget, call 634-6804 or e-mail: