Steve Spurling: 92 and still building boats

SOUTHWEST HARBOR – At Jarvis Newman’s boat shop, on Main Street in Southwest Harbor, the walls are full of framed photos of old boats.

Steve Spurling with the Norwegian-style pram currently under construction.

Newman was one of the first fiberglass boatbuilders on the Maine coast, producing hulls for luxury yachts, commercial fishing boats, and Friendship sloops at the rate of one every two weeks until he sold the business in 1978. He took the mold for his first yacht from a boat designed by his father-in-law, Raymond Bunker, who built wooden boats with his partner, Ralph Ellis, in nearby Manset from 1946 to 1978.

There are many striking images of Newman and Bunker & Ellis yachts on display here. Among them is a picture of a handsome boat that pre-dates both generations.

Two of Spurling’s finely crafted Whitehalls.

Maddy Sue was built by Chester Clement, Sr., who owned the C.E. Clement Boatyard, which is now the Southwest Boat Corporation. Clement, who died in 1937, was called Mount Desert Island’s “carriage trade” boatbuilder in a recent WoodenBoat-digital article by maritime historian Maynard Bray.

Built as a lobsterboat, Maddy Sue was later spruced up to become just as elegant as “one of the very first of the genre now known as lobster yachts, leading in stages to the well-known Bunker & Ellis variety, then to the present-day Hinckley Picnic Boat,” Bray wrote. “Her hull is absolutely beautiful: a nice sheer; a wonderful, quickly yet subtly flaring bow; and aft, of course, a transom with marked tumblehome. Ashore or afloat, she’s simply lovely to look at.”

On my recent visit to Newman’s shop, his daughter, Kathe Walton, is giving me the lowdown on the various images.

Whitehall detail.

“Maddy Sue was sitting out on Cranberry Island at Barbara Stainton’s boatyard for years,” she says of this classic. “It was built for Francis Spurling, Steve Spurling’s father, back in the day. Now a gentleman has bought her and is having her totally rebuilt. He trucked her to a boatyard in Vermont. She’ll have a grand launching next spring. I’d love to have Steve and Arlene Spurling go, too.”

At this moment, from the back office, Newman notices his daughter has a visitor. He strolls in.

“The Maddy Sue is a beautiful boat,” he says. “She’s in super shape now. “

Walton considers the connections between the Spurling and Bunker families.

It goes back to the 18th century, when the first Spurling, Bunker, Stanley, and Hadlock were settling Great and Little Cranberry islands. The mother of Raymond Bunker – half the Bunker & Ellis duo – was a Spurling. Steve Spurling’s mother was a Stanley. Steve Spurling and Raymond Bunker must be cousins, somehow. And the Newman family is mixed into the relations, too.

Steve Spurling, who is 92 and lives with his wife Arlene two doors down from Newman’s shop, has been a boat captain and boat builder all his life. He still builds small craft, including Whitehalls and dinghies of his own design, in a shop behind his house.

“He keeps the rowboats out there for sale,” Walton says. “He keeps building them. That’s what he does. And Arlene sews. They stay so busy. They’re both remarkable.”

“He needs to do something, just like I do,” says Newman who, once he sold the boatbuilding business in 1978, formed a boat brokerage but is now semi-retired. “I’m not sitting home watching TV. Got to keep going.”

Walton catches sight of someone coming through the back workshop. “Oh, oh, here’s trouble,” she jokes. I turn and see an older man with a friendly face and a roguish gleam in his eye. It’s Spurling, who swings by Newman’s shop regularly to have a chat. He homes in on me, cheerfully demanding to know, in a gruff voice that sounds as if he has to force it open, “Who are you?!” He turns to Newman and Walton for the latest gossip on the neighborhood’s rental houses, which apparently could use some better upkeep.

A dinghy of Spurling’s own design.

Taking advantage of a break, I ask Spurling, whose expression slides easily into a smile and a chuckle, if I can visit his shop.

He’s hard of hearing. “You coming now? Is that what she said?” he asks Walton.

“You’ve got to yell,” Walton tells me.

“Okay, dear,” he says to me. “C’mon. What do you want, take you by the hand?”

We head through the workshop, where a couple of Friendship sloops sit on jackstands. The wooden Friendship sloop Eastward, built in 1956 for New England seaman and maritime author Roger Duncan, is undergoing some noisy grinder work, as the boat’s new owner, tour boat captain Andrew Keblinsky, digs out the deck seams. Miff Lauriat’s cherry-red Salatia awaits its owner’s arrival for the usual spring upkeep.

The steam box out back.

Spurling forges ahead. “C’mon on!” he urges, as we head out to Main Street, walk over half a block, and cross through his yard to the shop and storage buildings he has out back. Inside, the shop is quiet except for the throb of fluorescent bulbs. There’s the usual workshop clutter: A desk, workbenches and heavy machinery covered with sawdust; coffee cans and plastic containers full of fastenings; stray drill bits, clamps, boxes of screws, and rolls of tape; lead weights, sandpaper rounds, measuring tapes, hand tools, shop lamps, lumber, and boat hardware lined up around a snub-nosed pram that sits on sawhorses, tipped partly on its side by means of ropes and pulleys. The boat is his design, but is based on a type of small Norwegian boat that was used for light fishing and everyday tasks for centuries, although the more old-fashioned the heritage model, it seems, the sharper and higher its bow transom. Spurling’s boat, which is in the finish stage, can be rowed or fitted with a small outboard.

Spurling unties the rope that fastens his back door, and we tramp onto the crusty snow, past a steambox that hangs below the eave, to a small shed, trailer, and plastic-covered temporary structure. Spurling opens doors and reveals half a dozen small boats – finely wrought craft, their brightwork gleaming in the sun, built from cedar on oak, with mahogany and oak trim. They sit on or lean up against stacks of lumber, ready to go on display on his front lawn when the warm weather sticks.

Under the plastic structure is Nefertiti, a 1956 Concordia yawl owned by John “Jock” Williams, the boatbuilder in nearby Hall Quarry. Spurling and Williams have been working on the boat’s structural restoration as an on-and-off project for the last couple of decades. Although they haven’t worked on it the past couple of years, Spurling is still ready to climb up on the staging and get to it.

After all, he’s been building boats for “a while,” as he says.

Spurling grew up on Great Cranberry Island. As a young man, pre-World War II, he rode on Raymond Bunker’s boat every morning from the island to Southwest Harbor, and back in the late afternoon, so he could work for the Southwest Boat Corporation, run at the time by Lennox “Bing” Sargent and owned by Sargent and Henry Hinckley. The first boat he worked on was a 90-foot wooden dragger, which was being built outdoors; the crew had to work in all kinds of weather.

The steam box out back.

When World War II stormed in, Spurling went off to join the heavy machine gun section in Company D of the Army’s 351st Infantry Regiment. In 1944, he was awarded a Bronze Star for heroic achievement in action, when his section, which was supporting the assault on Sarti, Italy, came under intense enemy machine gun and mortar fire, killing the platoon leader and six other members of the company. Spurling assumed command and succeeded in reorganizing the platoon.

“Realizing the importance of the heavy weapons support, Sergeant Spurling continued checking the positions of his men and keeping them continually on the alert and supplied with plenty of ammunition,” the citation reads. “Sergeant Spurling gave no thought to his own personal safety at any time. He continued his hazardous task for the rest of the day and night until orders came to withdraw to defensive positions. This heroic action by Sergeant Spurling lessened the enemy resistance greatly and inspired his men so that, despite the inclement weather, they exerted their utmost efforts in support of the attack. Sergeant Spurling’s brave and fearless actions under fire reflect great credit upon himself and exemplify the high traditions of the United States Army.”

Nefertiti, undergoing a long-term restoration at Spurling’s shop.

When Spurling returned home, he worked for a while longer at Southwest Boat. But mainly, for the next 50 years, he captained the picnic yacht Gambol for textile magnate Roger Milliken Sr. and his family. Millilken and his siblings, Gerrish Milliken and Joan Stroud, had summer homes in Northeast Harbor, and their sister Anne Franchetti, who was married to a Sardinian baron, had a house in Tremont.

Over the years, Spurling captained the family’s first and second Gambols. The first was a wooden luxury yacht built by Bunker & Ellis in 1952. When the second Gambol was built at the John M. Williams Co., Spurling was on the construction crew. The wealthy Millikens owned a variety of sail, power, rowboats, and tenders. When they left for their winter stomping grounds, Spurling was responsible for pulling all the boats, decommissioning them, and performing maintenance and repairs. He got everything back on the water in time for the family’s spring arrivals.

The Maddy Sue.

During the winter, he worked for area boatbuilders. In the 1960s, he was at the Bar Harbor Boating Co., John Cochran’s yard in Hulls Cove. Arlene recalls it was the ‘60s because the country was in the middle of the Bay of Pigs missile crisis, and there was some question whether Spurling would be able to cross into Newfoundland with his buddies to go moose hunting.

In later winters, he worked for his cousin, the wooden boatbuilder Ralph Stanley who, as it happened, would build a sloop for Milliken sister Anne Franchetti in 1995. And Spurling has a long relationship with Jock Williams’ yard, where he was responsible for the fine woodwork that finished the fiberglass boats produced there.

Arlene Spurling at one of her sewing machines.

Spurling’s wife Arlene, hospitable and fun to chat with, comes from the deeply rooted Dolliver family and was raised in the nearby coastal village of Manset. Bunker & Ellis’ boat shop, where Ellis’ son, Don Ellis, now carries on the boatbuilding heritage as the Ellis Boat Co., was on land previously in the Dolliver family. Arlene recalls, as a child, seeing, and hearing the explosions of, the flares shot off by the Navy blimps that were hunting German submarines near the local shoreline.

The courtship of Steve and Arlene was simple. Steve was a friend of Arlene’s brother. They met, he came back the next day, and they’ve been married since 1946.

What is 66 years of wedded bliss like? His partial deafness plays a major role.

Arlene uses cheerful fabrics for her crafts.

“I say he can’t hear right. He says I don’t talk right,” Arlene jokes.

Arlene, who is 85 and stays in excellent shape through exercise, is a gifted crafts maker. She’s a member of two crafts co-ops – Pemaquid, in New Harbor, and Lupine Cottage in Belfast. She stitches just about everything – quilted bags, placemats, potholders, credit card/change purses. Her sunny sewing room is full of worktables, at least three sewing machines, racks of thread, and bolts of colorful fabrics mainly Maine themed, such as blueberries and puffins. Crates full of finished products are stored upstairs until she ships them off to the co-ops.

“I learned to sew when I was a little girl and my grandmother taught me,” she says. Three children took up most of her homemaking time, but when they grew up, she returned to the needle.

Old photos from the Cranberry Isles.

Thanks to Steve’s job with the Milliken family, the couple was given the gift of some cruising opportunities early on. Starting around the mid-1960s and for the next seven years, they were tasked with piloting Gerrish Milliken’s boat Spindle (a name suited to the textile business) to Jacksonville, Florida, for annual maintenance at Huckins Yacht, where it was built.

In the 1980s, they were hired to deliver a boat named Fishwife to Florida, which they did every November for six years. They stayed in Florida through April, in an apartment at the home of their employer, then delivered the boat back to Northeast Harbor.

“The first day of November we were out of here, come hell or high water,” Arlene says.

The reason Fishwife was built was because the owner had admired Gambol.

“He liked what we had built, so I took him up to Jock Williams and he had that one built,” Spurling says. “But it’s two feet longer than what we had, because he was tall.”

Sergeant Spurling’s citation and bronze medal.

At the Florida house, by chance, Arlene got a job that she didn’t really want.

“The cook and butler decided they’d had enough of Florida,” she says. A new cook came along soon enough. “But he couldn’t find a butler. I wasn’t doing anything, so I said, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help you out until you find a replacement, I’ll be glad to do it.’ Well, five year later, I was still a butler. So then, a few jokers said, ‘Well, what do we call her? A butlerette? A buttress?’”

The Spurlings did additional boat deliveries over the years. Eventually, Steve retired, except for his own boatbuilding at home. But Arlene’s feet are still itchy, so she’s taken a lot of group tours since then. Her latest one was to New Zealand. She gives the country rave reviews.

“If you ever get a chance, go there,” she urges.

A 1940s photo of the missionary ship Sunbeam off the Cranberry Isles.

Not long ago, the couple took a trip related to Spurling’s war service. Their grandson, who works in Washington, D.C., arranged for his grandparents to fly down at cherry blossom time so they could visit the National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004.

“What year did you go?” I ask, a routine question.

She consults with Steve: “Do you remember what year you cut your thumb off?”

Wait. What?

“It was in the spring of 2005, because he was going like this” – she sticks her thumb up – “every time I took a picture, because he had a pin in it. I got his doctor to write out a thing on a prescription because we had to go through security when we flew.”

Well, at least it was a positive gesture, we agree. Thumbs up!

But that all begs a certain question.

“It got caught in a table saw,” he explains. “You know what? A table saw will cut your thumb just as easy as it will wood.”

The event resulted in another distinction for Spurling. At the time, then in his 80s, he was thought to be the oldest person ever to have a digit reattached.

Steve Spurling and his ready smile.

“He made medical history,” Arlene says.

The couple have brought out old photos. By coincidence, says Arlene, she just spent the whole afternoon at the Southwest Harbor Public Library, working with photo database wizard Charlotte Morrill, who asked Arlene to help identify old photographs.

“But they were back before my time,” she says. “The trouble is, so many of the older people are gone. And a lot of the pictures had no date.”

Their family photos are another matter. Among a series of four framed photos of boats in a Cranberry Isles harbor, from the 1930s or earlier, Spurling points out a “little bitty” boat that used to carry the mail and a few passengers to the island. It’s a lot smaller than the sturdy mailboat/ferry run today by Beal and Bunker.

“It had a make-or-break engine in it,” he says. “Of course, it didn’t go very fast. And the price at one time, I think, was 10 cents. And then finally it went up to a quarter. But it could only carry three or four.”

He points to Raymond Bunker’s boat, and his father’s, open, narrow boats that were small and vulnerable compared with today’s powerhouse lobsterboats.

There’s a winter photo from around the 1940s of the second Sunbeam, the name given to each of the Maine Sea Coast Mission ships that has provided services for remote islands from Mount Desert Island since 1905.  The harbor is full of ice.

“It used to get froze up pretty hard,” Spurling says. “We used to have to wait for an icebreaker from Portland. One time it got froze so hard that, when somebody needed a doctor, they put a flat-bottom rowboat on top of a  handsled, in case the ice broke, went across the Western Way and come got him and brought him to Cranberry, and took him back the same way. That’s how hard it was.”

Arlene finds an old photo of the Maddy Sue, the boat that was built for Steve’s father. It was originally named Trail Away.

After his father died, Steve bought Trail Away from his stepmother. He used  it for a few years, but then took the boat captain job for the Millikens and didn’t need it. In the 1950s, Steve sold the boat to a summer man on Cranberry, who renamed it Maddy Sue for his wife and daughter, owned it for decades, and then sold it to its current owner.  A boatbuilder/writer/researcher named Douglas Brooks has been documenting the boat’s restoration at Darling’s Boatworks in Vermont. Arlene is in regular contact with Brooks to see how things are going.

There are a bunch of other boat recollections – a long-ago boatbuilder you wouldn’t want to work for, a customer you wouldn’t want to have, the launching of the replica Spray in the 1990s, Sim Davis’ shop down on the Bass Harbor shore, where he built mostly draggers in the 1940s or thereabouts.

“He built one for somebody from Gloucester or somewhere, and he wanted to try it out and it wasn’t all paid for,” recalls Steve. “And he tried it out all right, and he kept right on going!”



Laurie Schreiber

About Laurie Schreiber

Laurie Schreiber has been writing for award-winning newspapers and magazines on the coast of Maine for more than 20 years.