Steve Spurling checks his work on a skiff in his shop. PHOTO COURTESY OF SPURLING FAMILY

Boatbuilder, captain 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 Islander in 2012. “I like workin’ from my house. I don’t like having to go somewhere with a lunchbox.”

Steve Spurling at work on a reconstruction of Nefertiti, a 41-foot Concordia yawl. He and Jock Williams began restoring the boat in 2009. Below, Spurling at the helm of Gambol, which he helped build at Jock Williams’ yard for the Milliken family. An earlier Gambol, the boat he ran for the family when he was first hired, was a 1952 Bunker and Ellis. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

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.”

His first boat job was at Southwest Boat, 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 told the Islander. “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 handsled, in case the ice broke, went across the Western Way.”


He served in Europe in World War II, earning a Bronze Star for heroic achievement in action. “His section, supporting the assault on Sarti, Italy, came under intense enemy fire, killing the platoon leader and six other members of the company,” Schreiber wrote. “Spurling assumed command, reorganized the men and kept them alert and supplied with ammunition.”

After the war Spurling 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 Company.

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 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 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

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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