All about my acquisition and reconstruction of my boat, 31 RP 721, a 1972 production Mk II River Patrol Boat, hull number 721...
• Also see “A Short History of the PBR“
Coming from a family that has long enjoyed boats and boating on the Long Island Sound, I was very familiar with boats from owning and working on them, both from a design and mechanical standpoint. It wasn’t until I signed up for the Naval Reserve – 3 days before my seventeenth birthday – that I was able to continue my fascination with boats – in the Navy.
But in the usual way of the military, the Navy had different plans for me.
My dream was crushed when I was assigned to the U.S.S. Colonial LSD – 18 stationed in San Diego. While serving on the Colonial, I could see San Diego’s harbor filled with small boats of every shape and description: LCVP’s, Mike boats, River Monitors, and a new little boat, the PBR. Later on in my tour of duty, while cruising around visiting various ports in South Vietnam, I got to see more of the little boats, the Mark I’s, and then the newer versions, the Mark II’s. It was the second time I fell in love! And I was determined that some day I was going to bring my love home, and make my dream come true.
But now, serving on the Colonial, I was just a deliveryman, delivering a half dozen PTF’s from Guam to Vietnam. Although I wasn’t serving on one of my dream boats, I was able to be with her, up close and personal. It’s all burnt into my memory.
Dennis A. Ambruso - Home and U.S. Navy Life
And time moved on. Marriage, a child, a divorce, work-work-work, responsibility and obligations…I had grown up but was still a kid inside, a kid with a secret love …And a dream.
So let’s fast forward to the 1990’s. After spending a few decades of collecting militaria and reenacting the American Revolution, the Civil war and then WW2, I had been able to use my skills to acquire and rebuild 6-pounder field guns, whaleboats, jeeps, armored cars, halftracks and tanks. And I still lived right on the shores of Long Island Sound in a turn of the century firehouse. So back to the fast-forward…..
A 1991 issue of Boats & Harbors magazine says the US Government is selling PBR’s …well PBR hulls. Stripped. No engines, no Jacuzzi’s, no controls, no gun mounts, no radar, you know what I mean…stripped. Hulls only, big ugly, deteriorated fiberglass hulls. But I was in love, and I could just sense my hands on her 31 foot sleek bottom…..
So I bought one. On her stern she carried the manufacturers number: 31 RP 721.
United Boat Builders in Bellingham Washington built 31 RP 721 in 1972. Later, United Boat became Uniflite. She was the first boat built that year. In 1973 she was sent to Vietnam as part of a shipment of 8 boats. En route MACV cancels the delivery, and 31RP 721 ends up in Panama training SEALS and crews until 1989, when she was sent back to the good old US of A and striped for government auction. You remember those ads …get your Government surplus Willy’s jeep for $50.00…..
So I made the commitment, and for about the cost of an engagement ring, $2,300 bucks, I had her. She was mine, all mine, and one of my dreams had come true. And a new journey was about to begin.
I had 31RP721 shipped from Mississippi to Connecticut where it arrived at Captain’s Cove Marina in Bridgeport. You may have heard of Captain’s Cove and it’s owner Kaye Williams, the man who bought and restored an 18th century British frigate, the H.M.S Rose. If you saw the movie Master & Commander…you saw the Rose. She was sold off to the film industry a few years ago, and now plies the warmer waters off San Diego.
She was a bit rough, but could be put back into service after a good going over, with a little help from my friends. Pete Pogany rigged the boat for lifting. Pete by the way, was a Bosun’s Mate 2nd. Class in the old navy. He was Lead Bosun’s Mate in the 3rd. Division on the USS Wasp CV18, an old Essex Class Aircradft Carrier, and was the man who rigged up 3 or 4 Mercury & Gemini space capsule for recovery…a great rigger and friend. After that, John Strong of Strong Welding did the sandblasting. Then the boat was lifted onto a trailer and brought over to my back yard, where I inspected it again and then popped a few corks. Champagne that is, and vodka tonics and ….
The boat sat in my backyard until 1998, while I read up on the boat, got the manuals, researched, planned, fabricated assemblies, and acquired parts and materiel. Lots of little things to put it back together and lots of money. And then more money followed by more money….you know how that goes too. I had no idea where some of the parts were going to come from or where the money was going to come from either. Jet pumps, not available surplus, were $18,000 each new… I needed two. Engines were available, so were the radios, radar, lights and the hundreds of other small things I needed to put it back into operational condition. And I’d find a way to get the guns, mounts and ordnance. But that was another can of worms. How does one get gun mounts from the navy? Actually, that turned out to be easier than I thought. In the previous decade, I had been a founder of a military museum and knew my way around the museum system. I had acquired a WW2 MK 17 mount for a PT boat…thinking some day I’d find the rest of the parts? And worked out a trade with a PT Boat museum trading my PT Boat mount for a MK56 mod 0 mount for a PBR. It was a brand new Colt Industries mount, serial # 27. But it took 3 years to make the deal. I still had other work to do, so time was not of the essence. And in the end, both parties were very happy, and had the proper mounts for their boats.
By this time, I was back working in a boat yard as a marine tech (mechanic). The owner of the Fayerweateher Boat Yard, Chris Ruskay, a good friend, said to me one day “why don’t you bring the boat to the yard where we can work on it?” I said, “What’s this ‘we’ stuff?” But it turned out he too liked older boats and challenges. And this was a challenge.
So, in the Spring of 1999, I had it figured out. Either throw money at it, or get a chain saw!
To provide the needed capital, I would have to sell off some other items. Goodbye ‘In the Mood’ my M-20 armored car and goodbye ‘Gunslinger’ my M-16 halftrack. Hello cash …. Goodbye cash. You’ll all always be in my memories.
A PBR Is Reborn
The stars were in the proper alignment. “The Age of Aquarius”. I had the money; the place; the help; the talent and the support, and working at the yard, I even got a few discounts! My research was completed and I had my blueprints in hand. Over the next few years I would have hundreds of pictures to show the hundreds of hours ‘we’ spent and hundreds of vodka tonics aka ‘go juice’. And built memories.
All of the work I would need to do to the boat from here on would require every bit of spare time I would have for the next two years. After work, weekends, late nights, under the lights. No holidays. I had the complete use of a boat yard and a heated, well lit fully equipped building at the boat yard. Rain, sleet, snow, sun, wind, lack of a tonic; nothing could stop me now. Chris’s invitation to use the building meant this was a project he wanted to see finished; and out of HIS shop. No wasting time for the next two years. Grinding, glassing, painting, fabricating, ordering and waiting for parts, supplies etc. Over 150 gallons of resin, and untold quantities of glass cloth, acetone, barrier coating and more.
But this was all ancillary to the big question…what am I going to do about the pumps? What kind of drive system will give me the performance of the navy boats, and not send me into the poor house. If not pumps, then what? A decision had to be made soon. I was in a yard, where the boats had all types of drive systems…plenty of examples to study and copy. After searching for the pumps for 8 years, there were none to be found in any surplus or museum systems. Do I pay $36,000 for new ones…that will probably only last a few years in salt water? Electrolysis is hell. Arnneson drive? Too costly. Straight marine drive would be all this old salt could afford to do. Propellers, shafts, struts & rudders. Not original, but dependable and long lasting with low maintenance.
With the boat sitting upside down, I began skinning off the delaminated glass down to the last layer. Then insured hull to stringer integrity. Then design and fabricate propeller tunnels to suit my purpose; high speed, fast maneuvering, shallow draft. I was a marine engineer and I didn’t even know it, but you do all kinds of silly things when you’re in love. So now I’m swinging 20″ propellers with cupped 30″ pitch harnessed to the 220 horsepower of 6V53N Detroit Diesels. Two of them.
After filling in the pump nozzle holes and cutting out the bottom of the transom I glassed in the two tunnels. Next I chopped out the molded trim tabs. I wouldn’t need them because I would have speed and speed gave lift to the boat. After faring the bottom and sides, putting it on and grinding it off, the boat was ready to go back inside the shed and be layed up. Put up the scaffolding, and start glassing. This was going to be an ‘all hands’ weekend, with Chris (the owner) Dennis Jackson; Ron DelMonico and myself. Time to open that 55 gal drum of no wax resin and unroll the glass cloth. We spent the next 6 hours building a boat. This was one of the times I can say “I got high with a little help from my friends”.
When working with cooking resin, one has to work fast and sure. No time for mistakes. You need a professional crew, and that’s what I had. Roll the resin; lay the cloth; roll, lay; repeat, repeat, repeat. No stopping. (“Assholes and elbows”, we used to say.)
Poor Dennis Jackson took a slip and spilled half a bucket of resin all over himself…no time to laugh now, it was one of those ‘you got to be there’ moments we’ll laugh about later. And then it was done. Tonics anyone?
It was a work of art. No flaws. Seams perfectly tabbed.
The next day, Sunday, we mixed up some tonics…uh I meant fairing compound, and fared the outside hull. The outside hull was smooth as a baby’s behind. My baby. No irregular surfaces. The now dry smooth surface was sanded and primed. The barrier coat was applied. Followed by bottom paint and then that lovely shade of green only Uncle Sam could love.
The boat was rolled over and placed on blocks and now the interior work could begin. As the inside progressed, time was taken up by fabricating assemblies of decks, hatches etc. These all had to be replace since everything got a bit waterlogged sitting outside all these years, and the balsa was shot. Using the best available technology, I replaced all the balsa with a new product called Nydacore, a polyester honeycomb material. Light weight and impervious to water and rot. Better than new. Aluminum rails, cleats, and mast fittings, were also fabricated and sub assembled, with a little more help from my heliarcing friends.
Talent. Did you know it takes talent to put a boat together? Without it, you’re up the creek without a paddle, and I’ll always be thankful to those talented folks who adopted my project as theirs. Folks who worked at the boatyard, or folks who spent their days at other jobs, and helped out on weekends just for the fun of it.
A Labor of Love.
Once the new engines were installed, we were able to install the shafts, stuffing boxes, struts and rudders. The shafts ended up being 5’6″ long, 1 1/2″ diameter stainless steel. The struts first had to be mocked up, and then sent out to be cast from bronze, bored, bearings installed and then assembled to the boat. Now we have a drive system.
New fuel tanks were built of marine aluminum. Takes a little finessing to get them inside the boat. Then coxswain flat decks were fitted, sealed and bolted down with stainless bolts. Same for the fore deck gun deck and hatches.
The cabin top was repaired, glassed, primed and painted, and all aluminum masts, brackets and rails were bolted in place. The Mk 48 rear mount and the forward Mk 56 gun base ring were installed. The boat was starting to look like the pictures..how a PBR was supposed to look, and so for inspiration, I installed the .50 cal and shield. Anyone for another tonic?
True to the saying ” Never get out of the boat”, I stayed in it for the next several months. I still had engine room detailing; insulation, valves, wiring, controls, gauges, switches, fuel lines etc., not to mention exhaust systems, bilge pumps and etc. I was starting to drive myself to drink!
One day, a gift horse arrived in the guise of another dear friend, Robbi Panish. He is the owner of Panish Controls in Bridgeport, Connecticut and was now running the business his grandfather started before WW2: making shift controls for US Navy and Coast Guard boats. Panish Controls continues toady to supply both the military and the civilian boat markets with precision controls. He had two control binnacles specially designed to work with my Detroit’s and props. In a beautiful gray powder coat finish. I could tell you what the Navy pays for them, but I won’t. Today they hold the prominent place on the control panel, as you can see in the pictures. This same day my canopy cover was delivered and fitted to the boat by Black Rock Auto Upholstery. All I had to do was supply Larry with the proper material. And 5 years later, it still looks as good as the day it was fitted.
Like I said, you gotta have talent to tackle a project like this. And I was lucky to be surrounded by it. Work now continued to progress steadily. Then came that Fall day when it was time to launch her. Sea trials. Pop the corks. We did that a few times. But where are the propellers. Frantic, Chris called down to S & S Propellers in Flushing NY. Those people can design and build anything you need. After they stop laughing and say ‘ you want us to make what ? … No I’m not kidding’…Chris said.. The two wheels they built were works of art. Told me how fast the boat should go at 2800 rpm. They were off by 16 rpm. Plenty good for government work. Thankfully for only $1,700 bucks..well below the government price. Can I interest you in a $3,500 hammer?
A beautiful day. I don’t remember the exact weather, but it was a beautiful day. A fun Day. All is going well. Filled with excitement and anticipation, Saturday started with coffee and…. No real work scheduled. Chris shut down the boat yard operations and has his wife Donna hold down the fort for a while. Dennis Jackson fired up the travelift, drove it over the pit, and commenced lowering PBR 721 into the calm waters of Black Rock Harbor.
31 RP 721 was now known as ‘Sat Cong’, a name fitting her purpose for being; a name that would be familiar to both the Vietnamese and the River Rats; and keep everyone else guessing.
When the propellers hit the water, I screamed and jumped in and checked for leaks. None were found. Tight as a crab’s ass. I remember someone saying ” Is it cocktail time yet?” “No ooo”, I said. It was now time to see if I’m as good a mechanic as I think I am. I lifted the engine hatch, turned on the batteries, walked into the coxswains flat, turned on the keys, checked the throttles and gearshift levers. Every light was green. The moment had come. Almost a full decade of my life had gone into this moment. OK, everything is on board, coolers, ice, and mixers. …Everything is ‘Go’, and my finger is on the button. “What are you waiting for, Chris yells! The tide is going out! Do Something.” So I hit the button, “golly sergeant” they started”. Revved right up nice and sweet. I screamed again, and checked for leaks, again. None to be found.
Then I checked the transmissions. Would they work as advertised? We were ready. Dennis lowered the boat full into the water, secured the travelift, and jumped on board and we went for a ride. Dennis J. served beverages, while Chris stood by the controls with GPS in hand, and John S. was in the engine room with a photo tach to check the readings of engine rpm against the tachs.
Sat Cong was now a sight to behold. First and only operational PBR on Long Island Sound, or the East Coast as a matter of fact. Not yet fully outfitted, but no ship is when she goes out for her first sea trials. Our flag was flying proudly high, .50’s were mounted and covered, and were celebrating on the Sound. Celebrating our accomplishments and creating a living memorial to the memory of those who served. It’s for them that this project became a reality. They are a part of history. I’m only trying to save that part of history for future generations. Lest we forget.
We had a crew of five on board; throttles wide open; plenty of ice. When she got up on step, the tach read 2775 rpm, and that was confirmed by Johnny in the engine room with a differential of 16 rpm. Chris started yelling out our speed, until we reached a max of 29 knots that day. Exciting turns, stops and starts, reversing, testing and checking. Let’s see what this baby can do! We declared the trials a success and finished off the afternoon visiting the local yacht clubs in the area to show off our work. She sat tied to the dock at Port 5 Naval Vets. We sat inside with the Vets. What a day.
Over the last couple of years, refinements were made and additional operating systems were added. Twin .50’s in the bow, single .50 in the stern with and M-60 and MK-19 grenade launcher amidships were added and finish detailed. Demilitarized guns, with belts of shining brass. She was a step back in time. Radios were tuned up with the help of the National Guard, and life vests (both period and current certified PFD’s) and flak jackets were added. C Rats. An 8-track player. Led Zeppelin & Bobby Dylan. A few classic Playboys’ for a distraction. And a small 4-man inflatable assault boat to dive off. A hammock swung in the back filled with equipment. All the detailing needed to bring her back historically correct and operationally safe.
The Coast Guard took special interest in her, usually with someone on board going” Hey, is that a PBR?!?!…I haven’t seen one in years, ..Mind if I came aboard?” Some of the newer guys took a special interest after 9-11. Until they heard from the older guys.
Some of those new guys had never even seen a real .50…. and Sat Cong would continue to educate thousands of people along the East Coast over the next 5 years.
But now the time has come to close this chapter and begin another. As I said in the beginning, PTF’s were my first love, and I now know where to find some. Wood. Rough and splintered, but I can feel their beautiful soft smooth curves in my mind. I’ll still have my memories of PBR 721, but as has been said before ” I have a dream”….and a plan….and friends…..and talent… all I need is money!
For further information about 31RP721, please contact or call Dennis A . Ambruso at (203) 334-3041.
Nov 15, 2017:
Regarding comments on Mid-Lants Chapter FaceBook page about the Veterans day parade:
Two former PBR sailors have accused me of defacing PBR, and SBU XI History by removing the issued hard top on PBR 721! By the way, the PBR parts store is out of business. For all other people that might have an issue with the boat, I’ll submit the following: www.pbr721.com/reconstruction/.