On the water, on the run

Updated Oct 4, 2005

Among the exotic souvenirs of his voyage around the world, Steven Cummings found a great deal on a pair of Indonesian monkeys.

He paid $60 for the baby primates, but Lorenzo and Nisa cost him much more.

A skirmish over the monkeys led customs officials in Australia to check the background of the boisterous sailor. They tipped American authorities on the Pacific island of Tututila to watch out for him.

Sure enough, only hours after Cummings arrived in Pago Pago, he was arrested on charges of violating his probation in Pinellas County by not repaying $94,000 for a famous yacht that he said sunk more than a decade ago.


"This whole thing," he said Friday, "has always been about money."

The lack of it. The lure of it. And the need to somehow get more of it.

But money was no longer an issue Friday. Cummings, 48, was sentenced to five years in prison for violating terms of his probation that stemmed from a bogus claim in 1981 when he said the 75-foot sailboat Tonga sank off the coast of South Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, Cummings told reporters and investigators that he was the only person aboard the boat when lightning struck from what was Tropical Storm Dennis. It went down, he said, in 1,100 feet of water.

A traditional vessel, the yacht was crafted of wood in the 1930s and had a two-masted ketch rig and a roomy 10-foot beam. It once was owned by film star Errol Flynn, author Sloan Wilson and car magnate John Hertz.

In 1979, brothers Charles and Paul Allison owned the boat when they sold it to Kathleen M. Lee, who had been Cummings' friend and business partner. By 1981, a dispute pitted Lee and Cummings against the Allison brothers, who continued to hold the mortgage.

Soon after the reported sinking, an insurance investigator began to doubt Cummings' version of what happened. So did the Allisons. And the story grew more complex.

Come to find out, Cummings had faked the sinking. He had loaded a pickup truck with some of the Tonga's floating deck equipment and borrowed a powerboat.


Just past the Gulf Stream, Cummings had strewn the deck equipment overboard before sending out an SOS signal and returning to dock in Miami. All along, the Tonga was sitting in a shipyard in Alabama, where it was being refitted.

The hull numbers were changed, and the boat became known as the Black Thunder. Cummings changed his name, too.

He later said in a newspaper interview that he created a phony passport to keep people from connecting the name Steven Cummings with a black sailboat that looked like the Tonga.

"I stayed in the alleys and the shadows," Cummings said.

The plan didn't work for long. Cummings was arrested in Haiti, and the Allisons eventually recovered the boat there.

Cummings eventually was sentenced to prison and probation. The Allisons asked for $277,000 in restitution to cover the cost of retrieving the boat from Haiti and repairing it, but Cummings was ordered to only pay $100,000.

By 1991, Cummings was living in Key West. He had paid only $6,000 and he was accused of violating his probation. So a Pinellas judge extended the probation to 10 years after Cummings said he could make monthly payments of $500 a month if given more time.

What he did not mention was he already had planned to leave the country in a matter of days _ to sail halfway around the world on the 56-foot yacht Sybarite _ belonging to William and Arlene Smith of California.


The Smiths said Friday they worked out a deal with Cummings and his fiance to work as crew members on the voyage through the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. The trip was supposed to end in Turkey.

Outside Istanbul, however, the Smiths said Cummings had the idea of continuing around the world. "He talked my wife into it, and she talked me into it," said Smith. "It was a dream we always had, and I thought why not go ahead and do it."

He said he never agreed to pay Cummings a salary. Instead, it was meant to be a lifetime chance for Cummings while the Smiths paid the expenses.

Some 22,000 miles later, prosecutors say, the truth caught up with Cummings. Customs officials in Australia checked Cummings' background after he insisted on bringing the two monkeys into the country, despite strict laws against foreign primates.

The officials, having learned the vessel's itinerary, told authorities in Pago Pago about the warrant for Cummings arrest. He was brought back to Pinellas County in April.

In court, Cummings said he had gone sailing around the world because he was told he ultimately would be paid about $95,000 as a salary. But he said he was arrested before the elderly Smith couple could pay him.

"It was a legitimate opportunity that could give me what I did not have, and that's why I did what I did," he said, adding that he always intended to come back to Pinellas and settle his debt.


But Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow was doubtful. He pointed out that Cummings had bought a TV in Europe, expensive clothes for a new girlfriend in Malta and the monkeys in Bali.

Not only did Circuit Judge John Lenderman sentence him to five years in prison, he ordered a lien placed against Cummings to cover $96,000 in unpaid restitution, plus $7,000 for extraditing him from Pago Pago.

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