Steve Cummings has been messing around boats his entire life. All kinds of boats. His current work-in-progress adventure is Silent Thunder, a 65-foot former Army T-Boat, where he and his wife Rose make their home.
Living on the west coast of Florida, the couple was ready for a lifestyle change – they wanted to spend time on the water again. They searched far and wide to find the perfect vessel.
“We wanted a big, roomy boat at a reasonable price,” said Steve. “I figured we would have to do a lot of work on anything we found which suited us.”
Their search ended in November, 2008 in Hempstead, North Carolina where they found T-Boat 453, then named Cormorant. Over the next two years, Steve made the 12-hour drive from their home in Englewood, Florida to Hempstead 14 times.
They erected a large tent behind Cormorant, which became the Cummings’ workshop and home-away-from-home. Their white van, always parked close at hand, carries a hardware store-worthy inventory.
“He was focused and relentless about the project,” said Rose, who joined Steve several times to work on the makeover. “We almost named her Relentless.”
Built in the early 1950s, the steel 2001 Design Army T-Boats, which housed five people in the aft cabin, were designated as Transport/Tugs for use in the Korean War. Constructed with a 50,000-pound cargo hold in the bow and a traveling tow bit at the stern, the intended use was as Lighters to transport cargo and personnel to deep draft vessels offshore. Most of the 88 T-Boats, designed by Andrew J. Higgins, never saw action as the Korean War ended.
The US Government transferred many of the previously mothballed T-Boats to other agencies and non-profit organizations such as the US Coast Guard, NOAA, US Fisheries, Army Corp of Engineers, universities, Sea Scouts and to individual states. Sales to commercial ventures began in the 1970s, and now more than 30 T-Boats are owned by private individuals.
Constructed at Missouri Valley Steel in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1952, the complete history of Silent Thunder is hazy. She was originally named Gator III by the US Army and renamed Cormorant at some point in time. Berthed in Southern California, the T-boat was converted “for diving and oceanographic research” in 1969 by D. C. Marine of Wisconsin. Cormorant was sold, and then later donated to the Tatman Foundation in 1979, which further donated the boat’s services “for scientific purposes” into the 1990s. Students and professionals conducted research projects and dives near Catalina and the Channel Islands, California.
Cormorant was sold to a man in San Diego who took her to Guam in search of diamond treasures. From there he brought her to The Boatyard at Hempstead, where she stayed on the hard for four years until purchased by the Cummings.
Steve Cummings has an extensive background in commercial, industrial and marine construction, having owned several businesses in the trade. He had a vision for the conversion and the know-how to do it.
The exterior was ground to remove the rust, then sealed and painted. Interior bulkheads were removed. The aft cabin, with bunks welded to the sides of the walls, was gutted and the rear-facing porthole was replaced with a door. It is now the formal sitting room with a large reach-through opening to the galley. The galley has all the conveniences of home, including a refrigerator, oven, microwave, ample counter space and custom-built storage compartments. And Rose’s herb garden.
The cargo hold, below the main deck at the bow, is now the master bedroom, bathroom and stateroom. Thousands of books fill the custom hand-made shelves alongside banks of drawers and cabinets. All Steve’s handiwork.
“Under the bed is all storage, too,” he said. “Not just what you see as part of the outside frame.”
There is plenty of natural light above the bed where there was once a steel deck with round hatches. There is now a full-width skylight made with hurricane glass.
“I still have to install the hand crank so it is easier to open and close,” said Steve. “I’m not worried about rough seas as there is a Battle Board made of 3/4-inch plywood to protect it.”
Left in its original position over the cargo hold, one round hatch can be opened for additional light and air circulation. It is also an escape route to the bow in case of an emergency.
A fellow T-Boat owner from New York visited the Cummings in Hempstead where the work was ongoing. “I watched in amazement how one owner through dedication can transform an old classic T-Boat into a fine looking cruising yacht,” Bill Keber said.
The only interior access to the lower level, where the single head is located, is via the spiral staircase, designed and built by Steve.
As a first-time guest, I was coached by Rose for the descent below.
“Here, let me take your camera and notebook and I’ll go first,” she said. “Just keep hugging the left and don’t try to turn around or you’ll get stuck.”
Her instructions were perfect.
“Once you go up and down a few times, you don’t even think about it,” said Steve. “Falling is not a problem as there is no place to go.”
As originally built, the only access to the lower level was through an external forward doghouse, which was a priority for change. A Portuguese Bridge now connects the fore and aft sections of the boat. Built by Steve.
“I didn’t want either one of us to have to go outside to get to and from the helm station,” said Steve. “That just didn’t make any sense.”
In addition to the port and starboard navigation lights, Silent Thunder has the original Caterpillar D375 engine. After two years on the hard during the restoration and conversion project, Steve said the engine started right up. He was surprised.
“She was out of the water when we turned the key and I shouted, ‘Shut ‘er down!'”
In Hempstead, Steve and Rose befriended the six boatyard cats. There was always plenty of food, water and shelter inside the tent during adverse weather. As cats are known to do, they multiplied.
“At one time we fed 32 cats,” said Rose. “Most were kittens and we eventually found homes for most, except the three we kept.”
Silent Thunder, named after an Akula-Class fast submarine featured in a novel Steve read, was launched in January 2011 and brought to Stuart, Florida. Shakespeare, Earl Grey and Molly, the rescued kittens, were onboard, part of the boating family.
As far as the Cummings know, Silent Thunder is the only T-Boat to be converted into a motor-sailor. It is now outfitted as a ketch with gaff rigging.
“That’s part of the reason for the name,” said Steve. “Silent when she is under sail and Thunder when she is engine powered.”
Steve Cummings is no stranger to large vessels or world destinations.
“I’ve been everywhere except Antarctica,” he said.
In 1991 he captained a voyage around the world on Sybarite, a 65-foot yacht with three passengers.
“It was a big, stout yacht-trawler,” said Cummings.
When they reached the Mediterranean, the owners flew back to the States for an extended holiday vacation. Cummings and the boat laid over in Malta for several months awaiting their return. There, he met and fell in love with Rose. She joined Steve and the others when the boat resumed its journey to the Greek Isles, Istanbul, Turkey, the Black Sea and beyond.
“We made 95 countries and 105 ports and we only stayed at two docks,” said Cummings, who likes to anchor out. “They made us dock at Sydney, Australia, or I would’ve anchored there too.”
At Constanza, Romania, where they spent more than a week alongside, Cummings noticed a boat with no paint on the exterior.
“It was down to bare wood,” he said. “These people were so poor, there was no money for basic maintenance.
“A practicing architect owned the boat. We made a friend for life when I gave him two gallons of white and one gallon of orange paint,” he said. “We received a postcard from the man every year for many years after that.”
With a handful of chores to be done, the couple plan to depart from Florida before the hurricane season begins to introduce Silent Thunder to Rose’s family in Malta.
“We’ll know our route when we see what the weather is like,” said Steve, leaving his options open.
With 2,000 gallons of fuel, 500 gallons of fresh water plus two water makers, three generators, four sets of batteries, a wind generator with four-foot blades, several electronic charts, multiple radars and satellite communication, Silent Thunder is well-equipped for the Atlantic crossing.
“If it isn’t fun, don’t do it,” said Steve. “If it isn’t a challenge, don’t do it.”
Kathy Enzerink calls Oriental, North Carolina home when she and her husband Gerry are not sailing onboard Sea Bird. She is a freelance writer, journalist and publisher of children’s coloring books. Contact her at [email protected].