1930s-era skiff build by Arthur "Chummy" Spurling of Islesford was measured and then completely taken apart, to allow a group of student boatbuilders to create an exact replica. Jess Sanborn, who leads the rowing program at Little Cranberry Yacht Club, takes the new skiff for a spin Friday. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM HUBER

From Islesford to the Bronx, and back again, Chummy Spurling skiff reborn

CRANBERRY ISLES — Arthur “Chummy” Spurling, who lived to be 102 and was the last full-time boatbuilder on Little Cranberry Island, built a lot of skiffs in his long career.

Each one was a little bit different.

And until recently, the only set of written plans for a Chummy skiff known to exist were those included in John Gardiner’s 1977 book, “Building Classic Small Craft.”

Those plans, a table of offsets and a scale drawing, were likely created from a half-hull model, according to Ben Bentley, the boatbuilder who recently led a project to build a replica of another Chummy skiff.

Edmanuel Roman, boatbuilding student program director at Rocking the Boat, examines the old skiff in 2016. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKING THE BOAT

Bentley is a boatbuilding teacher at Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit that works with students in the South Bronx to build wooden boats, learn to row and sail and restore urban waterways. His crew of apprentice boatbuilders worked for a year to build the replica skiff, working off an old, unsalvageable boat that belonged to an Islesford summer family.

“This whole project started with my mom’s conviction that our rowboat was a special piece of history and something should be done to revive it,” Katrina Van Dusen said of her mother Maria Van Dusen (nee Lord), who orchestrated the effort.

About three years ago, Katrina Van Dusen and her friend Sam Huber noticed the skiff tucked away in a downstairs room of the Islesford house owned by the Lord family.

Maria Van Dusen’s parents bought the property when she was young “and the boat came with it,” Huber said. The Lord family has a photograph of the five children who spent summers on Islesford, among them Maria, all in the boat at the same time.

They estimate the boat was built in the 1930s. It’s 14 feet long, with two rowing stations.

In Bentley’s view, this design is more elegant than the one published by Gardiner. “It’s the same size, but the transom has more of an angle on it, and more of that wineglass shape,” he said.

Huber was intrigued by the old boat. He offered to the Van Dusens that he could try to restore it. When he got it home to New Jersey, he called up Adam Green, executive director of Rocking the Boat, and the two assessed the skiff together.

“We agreed that restoration was impossible, but it would be great project for their boatbuilding program to take lines off it and build an exact replica,” Huber said. “It’s not only the exact measurements, but the apprentices and Ben copied all of the joinery. There are elements of it that you’d never get from a description in a book.”

Bentley and his crew worked for about a year, beginning in the spring of 2018 and launching the new skiff this summer. Last week, the new boat came to Maine from the Bronx on a trailer.

Huber and Katrina Van Dusen rowed it out to Islesford from Northeast Harbor on Friday morning. It took them about an hour and 15 minutes.

“It was a beautiful day,” Huber said, and their morning row was early enough that conditions were “still pretty windless.”

The skiff, named Chummy, will become part of the Little Cranberry Yacht Club’s rowing program.

Another recently built Chummy skiff, Cora, is in the Islesford Boatworks fleet. That group was founded by Brendan Ravenhill and his siblings after Brendan worked for a time at Rocking the Boat in New York. They built Cora from Gardner’s plans in 2011.

The lines of Spurling’s skiffs are also preserved in fiberglass boats. Jarvis Newman built hundreds of fiberglass skiffs from a mold he made from a Spurling original that belonged to former U.S. Navy and Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates, Jr., who used it as a tender to his Bunker and Ellis yacht Jericho.

Those molds are on the Cranberries now, too — Newman and Gray purchased them from Hunt Yachts in 2013.

Measuring a boat to take lines off it is not something today’s boatbuilders often have a chance to do, Bentley said.

“We did a great job on it because all our measured lines came together nice and fair.”

The original skiff had unusual oarlocks. “I thought they were unique to that boat,” boatbuilder Ben Bentley said,” but then I saw a dealer at the Wooden Boat Show in Mystic that was selling them. Apparently a few different companies made them.” PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKING THE BOAT

After the measuring was complete, they completely disassembled the boat, “to see the angles and how it all assembles,” he said. “The inner keel, outer keel, stern post and stem are very unusual. I’ve never seen a boat put together like that.”

“The seats are basically struts for the boat that reinforce and stiffen it,” Huber said. Spurling “had tight fit them into the shear plank of the boat and the gunwales.

“So it just has the marks of the maker all over it.”

Bentley plans to create a scale drawing and table of offsets available to other boatbuilders who want to try building this skiff. “I hope to preserve all that,” he said.

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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