Sailor-artist Ashley Bowen of Salem, Massachusetts painted a picture of the British ketch Thunder, shortly after she had been captured by a Salem privateer in 1780, and that painting is now at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem. She, and several sisters, had been built for the Royal Navy in 1758-9 as a bomb-ketch, which was normally used to fire enormous exploding mortar shells into enemy fortresses. This meant that she was unusually heavily built in order to withstand the repeated shocks from firing the mortar. The Navy sold her into private hands in 1774 because she was by then quite rotten, but since she was still listed as being part of the Royal Navy’s fleet at New York City in July 1777, that means that she was probably taken back into the Navy on a short-term charter as a transport after she had been given a “great repair” and altered at the same time. According to Bowen’s painting, the new owners not only removed the heavy mortar bed from the middle of the ship but also added height to her topsides and a small, low forecastle, under which cooking was most likely done. All of these things would make her more useful for carrying either cargo or troops. Thunder’s plans (as originally built) survive at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England. A ketch was a two-masted ship with the larger mast forward of the smaller one (unlike a schooner, which was the other way around). She carried square course, topsail, and topgallant on the main mast, a square topsail on the mizzen, and gaff sails on both masts, as well as fore-staysails. Ketches were actually quite numerous among trading vessels – the Hudson Bay Company’s Nonsuch of the 1650s to 1670s is one example. A much smaller ketch, Liberty (ex-Katharine), on Lake Champlain was Benedict Arnold’s first vessel in Continental service on 30 April 1775. Being strongly built, Thunder probably survived the war by many years in private hands as an armed merchant ship, probably trading to the Caribbean for sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, ginger, chocolate, and mahogany. Many period portraits exist of Thunder’s various sister-ships, one of which was a major factor in the British capture of Fort Saint-Louis in the French colony of Senegal, Africa on 1 May 1758. Our Thunder will measure 65 feet (20 metres) long on deck and 21 feet beam. Ketches both bigger and smaller than Thunder were quite popular in colonial and Revolutionary America, but Thunder is the only one of this size for which we have an illustration.
Colonial Navy Inc. (non-profit, tax-exempt) plans to build an operational copy of Thunder (using long-life wood-epoxy laminates) to take part in a year-round sail-training program with several other historic ship copies. She is to be built of cold-molded wood-epoxy laminates for strength and longevity. Now that the 250th anniversary of American independence is around the corner, it is the right moment to get Thunder sailing again and seen by as many people as possible (which will reinforce the public’s awareness of the enduring British-American alliance). Our Project Director is John Millar, who built the full-sized, operational copies of the 24-gun frigate Rose and the 12-gun sloop Providence, so he is the right person to supervise this new ship; Thunder and Providence are identical in size. Contributions, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to Colonial Navy Inc., 710 South Henry Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185-4113. Please designate Thunder.
Colonial Navy Inc.’s historic ship line-up: ships Batchelors Delight, General Pickering; barque Surprise; brigs Tartar, Cabot, Andrew Doria; schooner* Royal Savage; ketch Thunder;* sloop Enterprise; cutter Dolphin.