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June 10, 2013

Steve Spurling: 92 and still building boats

Great Cranberry native's life has revolved around boats, big and small

by Laurie Schreiber

Steve Sprurling
Steve Sprurling

SOUTHWEST HARBOR – Steve Spurling, who is 92, 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. Come spring, he pulls the small boats out onto his front lawn to sell.

Spurling grew up on Great Cranberry Island. As a young man, pre-World War II, he rode 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.

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 in Italy, when his platoon leader and six other members of the company were killed under intense enemy machine gun and mortar fire, and he assumed command and kept the men going.

Back home, he took the job as captain for textile magnate Roger Milliken Sr. and his family. That job lasted 50 years.

Spurling started out running the family's wooden luxury yacht, Gambol, 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 boats: sail, power, rowboats and tenders. When they left for their winter home, 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. 

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. In later winters, he worked for his cousin, the wooden boatbuilder Ralph Stanley. And Spurling has a long relationship with the John Williams yard, where he was responsible for the fine woodwork that finished the fiberglass boats produced there.

Thanks to his job with the Milliken family, Spurling and his wife Arlene were offered some cruising opportunities early on. Starting around the mid-1960s and for the next seven years, they were tasked with piloting another Milliken boat, Spindle (a name suited to the textile business), to Jacksonville, Fla., 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.

Eventually, Spurling retired, except for his own boatbuilding at home.

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.

Arlene remembers the trip was in 2005, because that was the year her husband cut his thumb off.

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

At the time, then in his 80s, he was thought to be the oldest person ever to have a digit reattached.

On a visit to his shop, the usual working clutter was evident: 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 he's building now is his own design but is based on a type of small Norwegian boat that was used for light fishing and everyday tasks for centuries. Spurling's boat, which is in the finish stage, can be rowed or fitted with a small outboard.

Out the back door, past a steambox that hangs below the eave, is a small shed, a trailer and a plastic-covered temporary structure which shelter half a dozen small boats he built in recent years. They are 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, as he says, he's been building boats for "a while."




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