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Children revive historic skiff design

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Colin Harrison, at rear, and Patrick Mocarsky work on Friday, July 29, 2011, inside an unfinished skiff under construction at Islesford Boatworks on Little Cranberry Island. The 11-foot skiff, designed by the late boatbuilder Arthur "Chummy" Smith, will be the sixth boat produced by the seasonal school since it was founded in 2006.
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

CRANBERRY ISLES, Maine — Amid the controlled chaos of Wednesday and Friday mornings, a familiar form is taking shape in a local barn and wood shop.

A wooden skiff designed by Arthur “Chummy” Spurling, a local master boat builder who died in 1975 at the age of 102, is being built by approximately a dozen children between the ages of 7 and 12.

The boat is the latest project under way at Islesford Boatworks, a seasonal nonprofit program that teaches children and others about the fine art of building small wooden boats. Founded in 2006 by adult siblings Amanda, Brendan and Geoffrey Ravenhill, the program runs for several weeks each summer, with portions dedicated first to adult and then to juvenile instruction.

According to program instructors, the 11-foot skiff being built this summer is the first Spurling-designed wooden boat built on the island in approximately 40 years.

“We’ve had a lot of people stopping in to see this boat,” Peyton Eggleston, a retired doctor who serves as a volunteer instructor and fundraiser for the program.

The school has produced five boats since its founding, but none with a design that has such a local history and connection, according to school instructors.

Peter Phineas Ramsey is an instructor who came to Maine last year after working with Islesford Boatworks executive director Brendan Ravenhill at Rocking the Boat, a similar program in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ramsey, who is getting his teaching certificate at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said Friday that instructors knew there would be heightened interest from the island community in the Spurling boat.

They also knew the technically advanced design would be a tough one to replicate, Ramsey said. Fortunately, they were provided with a design of the boat by Richard Stanley, son of renowned Southwest Harbor wooden boat builder Ralph Stanley, who had drawn the design on the back of a nautical chart of Harrington Bay. Jarvis Newman, another Southwest Harbor boat builder who has built many fiberglass copies of Spurling’s skiffs, also came by to give his blessing to the effort.

“We knew going into it, it was going to be a pretty big challenge,” Ramsey said. “But the potential upside was just too big. So we decided to take a chance and to try to build a boat that hopefully the community can coalesce around.”

On Friday, about 10 children were on hand for the school’s morning session to paint floorboards, drive copper rivets through the hull, sand oars and pound small wooden bungs, or plugs, into holes where thwart risers have been screwed to the wooden ribs. As the sounds of power sanders and pounding hammers and mallets filled the woodshop, a handful of adults offered guidance and supervision to the young minds and small hands at work.

Eight year-old Colin Harrison was there as his parents Simon and Stephanie Harrison watched him work on the boat with other children.

“I’ve been watching him get really into it,” Stephanie Harrison said of her son. “I can’t begin to grasp the way this [kind of learning] helps with other facets of life.”

Simon Harrison said he is impressed with the quality of work his son and other kids in the program are doing.

“It’s a work of art,” he said of the boat.

Brenna Sullivan, a nine year-old girl who lives year-round on Little Cranberry Island, where the school is located, said Friday that she likes participating in the program because she enjoys meeting and learning with other children.

“I’ve used tools [before], but now I’m learning how to use more,” Sullivan said. “I like all of it.”

Each summer, the finished collaborative project is auctioned off and then launched from a nearby beach by children and a few adults dressed in pirate garb. This year’s launch is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 20.

According to Eggleston, the auction this year was expected to raise a little more money than usual, given the local interest in the boat. The school takes tuition but does not turn away any prospective student because of a lack of funds, he said.

Eggleston said he writes about nine grant applications each year to help raise the $30,000 to $40,000 that the program needs each summer to operate.

“So far this year, we haven’t gotten any [grants],” Eggleston said. “[But] it always seems to come out so it breaks even.”

According Amanda Ravenhill, the unfinished skiff was auctioned off Saturday to a local resident for $10,000. In addition to doing the remaining woodwork, the children in the program will also decide what color it should be and what to name the boat, she said.

“This has been our dream the whole time,” Amanda Ravenhill said of the goal she shared with her brothers of having the program reproduce a Spurling-designed skiff. “We finally got the gumption to do it.”

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