Island boat builder, captain Steve Spurling remembered

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Anyone who regularly drives Main Street here will know the shingled house that, in the summer, often has skiffs for sale out on the lawn.

That’s the house where yacht captain and boatbuilder Steve Spurling, who recently died hours shy of his 98th birthday, lived with his wife, Arlene. When he retired from the 50 years he worked for a wealthy summer family, he turned to working in his own shop behind his house.

“What else am I going to do? Sit in a chair all day?” Spurling, then 91, told the Mount Desert Islander in 2012. “I like working from my house. I don’t like having to go somewhere with a lunchbox.”

Arlene Spurling remembers that Steve would tow the rowboats ready for sale around to the front yard with a small tractor. Once, she said, some visitors stopped and asked if they could take a picture; they’d never seen a boat on a tractor before.

Spurling grew up on Great Cranberry Island. When he was a child, according to Laurie Schreiber’s book “Boatbuilding on Mount Desert Island,” the mail boat to the Cranberries was “little bitty” and carried the mail “and a few passengers for ten cents. Finally it went up to a quarter.”

Spurling’s first boat job was at the Southwest Boat Co., then on Clark Point, commuting from Cranberry to Southwest on Raymond Bunker’s boat. In those days, the yard was building large draggers, and building them outdoors.

“This was years ago, back when we had cold weather,” he said. “I’d have to get the ice off the boat in the mornings and I never got warm.”

A few times in the 1940s, there was so much ice in the harbor that an icebreaker was needed.

“We used to have to wait for an icebreaker from Portland,” he told Schreiber. “One time, it got froze so hard that when somebody needed a doctor, they put a flat-bottom rowboat on top of a hand sled, in case the ice broke, went across the Western Way.”

Spurling served in Europe in World War II, earning a Bronze Star for heroic achievement in action. After the war he returned to work at Southwest Boat for a time, but soon landed a job as yacht captain for a summer family. He would work for them for 50 years, making sure the family’s fleet of sailboats, rowboats and powerboats were maintained and ready for use in the season.

In the winters, he worked with his cousin Ralph Stanley building boats, and later at the John Williams Boat Co. in Hall Quarry. He and Arlene raised their children in Southwest Harbor. One son, Robert, followed in the family boatbuilding tradition and has worked for many years as an electrician at the Hinckley Co.

Several times in the 1980s, after the kids were grown and out of the house, Steve and his wife took Fishwife, a powerboat owned by another summer family, to and from the west coast of Florida and stayed in an apartment there for the winter.

“My fingerprints are all over that boat,” Arlene Spurling said.

In 2012, Steve Spurling was given a Life Achievement Award from the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society.

“He’d talk boats with anybody,” Arlene said. “If you didn’t want to talk about boats, he’d get bored.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Managing Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Liz Graves is managing editor of the Islander. She's a California native who came to Maine as a schooner sailor.[email protected]

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