In September, as Donald Trump toured New Bern, North Carolina, a neighborhood hit hard by Hurricane Florence, the president became distracted by a shiny object: a lovely yacht, washed up in a backyard. “Is this your boat?” Trump asked a resident, according to the Washington Post. “Or did it become your boat?… At least you got a nice boat out of the deal!”
Stephen Colbert turned the incident into a running joke on The Late Show; his staff produced a faux children’s book — Whose Boat Is This Boat?: Comments That Don’t Help in the Aftermath of a Hurricane — to raise money for Florence victims, and then a “holiday special” based on the idea.
So whose boat is that boat? As it turns out, it belongs to one Johnny O’Brien, who named it Zeus — and until Florence, called it home. O’Brien, a sailboat captain and Steinway concert piano technician, learned of his boat’s fate the day after Florence, when a friend sent him a news photo. “I was destroyed, basically,” says O’Brien, who’s now staying with friends. “That’s a very beautiful boat that I spent nine months and 3,000 to 4,000 hours restoring. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful boat now and it’s well-equipped to handle large groups when they’re chartering with me.” The boat is also key to O’Brien’s livelihood; each year, he sails it to the Bahamas, where he charters it out to Boy Scouts and others, offering sailing lessons and pleasure cruises.
O’Brien, who’s worked as a piano technician for Phish, Daniel Lanois and Jazzfest, was unamused by Trump’s comments. “It’s exactly what I expected from him,” he says. “he thinks that he’s funny, but he’s not funny. He laughs at people’s expense and it’s typical of him to say something that would get a reaction from his little clan, but at the same time, it’s insulting and completely inappropriate to someone else; for instance, me and my boat. That was completely inappropriate for him to react that way. The president of the United States didn’t have the heart to consider the fact that this was someone’s home.”
The good news is that Zeus is pretty much undamaged; the bad news is that hauling it back to sea would cost something like $30,000, according to O’Brien. FEMA has sent O’Brien “a little bit of money for personal property damage, like clothes and things like that,” but they’re “not responding” to his requests for help pulling the boat back onto the water. (FEMA also didn’t respond to a request for comment on the case). “There’s no precedent,” says O’Brien, “for moving a boat that is someone’s home. I’m trying to set the very first precedent, which needs to be set. If you had a damaged house, FEMA would help you completely rebuild your house.”
O’Brien has no plans of giving up on Zeus. “I don’t quit,” he says. “I have over 120 phone calls to FEMA. I’m not going to lose my boat.”