November 26, 2020

Griswold Launches Effort to Raise Funds to Purchase Unique ‘Mervin F. Roberts’ Rescue Boat for Maritime Museum in Maine

A smiling Mervin F. Roberts of Old Lyme, age 99, is pictured here on Oct. 31, 2020 at his home in Old Lyme. Roberts is the man after whom a very special life saving boat is named. The Wood Island Life Saving Station Association (WILSSA) hopes to acquire the boat for its maritime museum.

OLD LYME — At Monday’s Old Lyme Board of Selectmen’s meeting, First Selectman Timothy Griswold opened an item of New Business saying it was, “… something really intriguing.”

He went on to explain that he had been connected with Samuel ‘Sam’ Reid, who serves as president of the non-profit Wood Island Life Saving Station Association (WILSSA) of Kittery, Maine. This organization is currently working on a major project to restore the 112-year-old life saving station, which was originally part of the US Life Saving Service (a forerunner of the US Coast Guard.)

A photo of Wood Island Station from earlier this week. The ‘Mervin F. Roberts’ will live inside the building and travel down the marine railway into the sea. Notice the new pier structure at lower right. The marine railway structure is also now in place, ready to be completed in 2021.

The WILSSA plans to create a maritime museum in the old station and restore the marine railway, which was used to launch rescue boats. Griswold said the life-saving station, which is sited on Wood Island off Kittery Point, “fell into disuse … and the Town [of Kittery] was going to demolish it.” The WILSSA was formed in 2011 with the immediate aim of saving the station from demolition.

This is a recent photo of the pier (right side) and marine railway (left side) structures at Wood Island. Neither is completed yet, but both are getting close. Notice the wooden door in the sea wall that will be removed for the marine railway to pass through.

The organization’s website states, “After three years of construction, and $3.8 million so far, the entire building has been cleaned of hazardous materials, the structural elements rebuilt, the exterior restored and the north wall and shed rebuilt.”

Through an advertisement on Facebook, Reid heard about an old coast guard rescue boat for sale in the southeastern Connecticut area, which was named the Mervin F. Roberts. Griswold said it transpired that Mervin Roberts of Old Lyme had indeed owned the boat from around 1998 to 2006, when he sold it to David Smith of Essex. Smith now wishes to sell the boat.

Ben Clarkson at the helm of the ‘Mervin F. Roberts’ in 1997.

Griswold described the history of the boat prior to Roberts acquiring it, noting it was purchased by Ben Clarkson, a former resident of Old Lyme, when Clarkson ran The River School in Old Saybrook. Clarkson had acquired three boats in the early 1990s from a seller, who had purchased them as surplus items from the Burnt Island Life Saving Station (near Boothbay Harbor, Maine) in the mid 1960s.  As a surprise, the school named one of the boats after Roberts, who was in Griswold’s words, “… involved in the school.”

When the school fell on hard times, the boat was given to Roberts in lieu of a loan he had made to the school.

Moving to recent events, Griswold spoke about how Reid had visited Old Lyme and met with both Roberts and Smith. Reid brought with him an expert on boats of that era, who confirmed, to quote Griswold, “This is a boat that was just like the one at the [Wood] Island.” During the visit on Oct. 31, Roberts presented Reid with the piece of artwork shown in the lead photo of this story. The artwork is intended as a donation from Roberts to the WILSSA.

A late 1940s photo showing the marine railway at Wood Island. There was no pier historically.

Griswold also reported that, “Pan Am Railways [of Waterville, Maine] has volunteered to donate the railroad track and fabricate the cradle to get the boat into the water.”

Noting, “Now we have to get the boat up to Maine … I have accepted the challenge to raise the funds to help pay for the boat and transport it to Maine,” adding, “We all know and love Merv.”

Stressing that, “This is nothing to do with the Town,” Griswold clarified, “I just wanted to let people know. I think it’s pretty fantastic. This is a private endeavor, not a town-led thing.” He explained he was, “Going to work to get a letter finalized [soliciting funds.]”

During public comment at the meeting, Reid spoke by phone to the board of selectmen, saying, “Thank you for your kind comments. I can’t wait to bring this boat up to Maine. I hope you will all come to Maine to celebrate this.”

Reid clarified separately by email that “The first step in learning about the history of this boat came from an article [by Michele Dickey] that I read about Mervin Roberts in the LymeLine!  I emailed to the publisher [Olwen Logan] and she helped connect me to Tim Griswold and Mervin.”

A rare photo of a “pulling surfboat” launching down a marine railway in Gloucester Mass. Sadly this station and its railway are now both demolished.

LymeLine also obtained additional information about the Mervin F. Roberts from Reid. He described the boat as, “a 1930s US Coast Guard rescue craft – a modified “Type SR pulling surfboat”.”  He added that a national expert, Tim Dring, has confirmed that only 110 of these were ever made, and only five survive.

Dring is a retired US Navy Commander and former chairman of the board of the US Life Saving Service Heritage Association, which Reid describes as, “The national organization of all things life saving station.” Reid is also a member of that board.

A rare photo of a “pulling surfboat” launching down a marine railway in Gloucester Mass. Sadly this station and its railway are now both demolished.

The Mervin F. Roberts appears to be the only one of the five remaining boats that can still be used in the water.  These boats were built in the Curtis Bay Yard south of Baltimore, Md.  Her length is 25 feet, 6 inches.  Her beam is 7 feet, 3 inches.  She weighed 2,066 pounds before an inboard engine was later added.  Originally she was powered by eight rowers directed by a helmsman. These “surfmen” would go out and assist mariners in distress at any time of the year, often in extremely challenging conditions. 

By an extraordinary coincidence, one of the original 110 boats was in place at Wood Island in 1947.

Asked how he felt about Griswold’s response to the Mervin F. Roberts ‘situation,’ Reid told LymeLine by email, “The Wood Island Life Saving Station Association is so grateful to Tim Griswold and the Selectmen of the Town of Old Lyme for discussing the idea of helping raise the funds to pay for the lovely old Coast Guard surfboat, the Mervin F. Roberts. Honoring Mervin in this way is so special.  We will preserve this rare boat for a rare man.”

Reid added, “For this boat to be heading back to its home state of Maine is wonderful and knowing that it is going to Pan Am Railways in Waterville this winter is outstanding.  This freight railway company is leading the way in the restoration of the only-in-the-nation marine railway at Wood Island Station.  They will take very good care of the Mervin F. Roberts.”

In this undated photo, the Mervin E. Roberts life saving boat is shown moored at Mystic Seaport. All photos are courtesy of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association.

Commenting on future plans for the Mervin F. Roberts, Reid wrote, “To have this one-of-a-kind boat operating on the rare marine railway will be the gem of the future museum at Wood Island Station.  Educating the public for generations to come about the brave men that rowed out to save others is such an important mission.”

Reid concluded, “We can’t wait to finish the project and welcome our many friends in the southern Connecticut area to come join us in celebrating this milestone.”

Editor’s Note (i): As a tribute to our own beloved Mervin Roberts, who is now 99 and still living in Old Lyme, Griswold is hoping to raise $$6,750.00 to cover the cost of the ‘Mervin F. Roberts’ boat and its transport to Maine. There the boat will help tell the story of the brave men of the early Coast Guard. If LymeLine readers would care to contribute to this effort, this is the link to make a tax-deductible donation to the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association.

(ii) This video offers a beautiful overview of the Wood Island Life Saving Station

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