A Man Who Works on Water

Steve Ewing – wharf builder, conservationist, family man, poet – tells a story or two about a lifetime on the water, in the city, and on the Vineyard.

It’s a lucky thing for Steve Ewing that he works on the water. If he toiled on the land, he’d never earn a dime, because he’s one of those Vineyard guys who can’t walk more than twenty-five yards down a village street without running into someone he knows. Go with him on an early spring day from lunch at the Wharf Pub and Restaurant on Main Street in Edgartown to a pier he’s building two hundred yards down the waterfront, and every pickup truck he meets along the way slows, the driver rolling down the window to laugh with Steve about something that happened a few days back, or discuss the whereabouts of an order of lumber, or ask for advice about how to rig up something for a boat, a house, or maybe even the pickup.

The truck will pull away, and it’s a sure bet that Steve will ask, “Know that guy? Nice guy,” and he’ll tell you who the driver’s parents were, who his first wife was, what his daughter’s studying in college. Steve is a good storyteller, principally because he’s a good listener, and knowing as many people as well as he does, his tales veer with discursive flair across time and place and person. Steve is fifty-six now and for the past thirty-eight years he’s built piers and bulkheads on the quieter waters of Martha’s Vineyard, and shoreline-saving jetties and seawalls where the currents run more wildly. And though this is one of the tougher jobs you can have on the Vineyard waterfront, and though Steve has known a full measure of joy and sorrow in his life, the stories he tells show that he’s never lost a sense of wonder about how things happen and how, most of the time, the difficult issues work themselves out.

But in the end, Steve Ewing – wharf builder, conservationist, public servant, family man, poet, and storyteller – would rather the story not be about him. He thinks there are other guys, like the one in the pickup who just drove off, whose narratives are every bit as interesting as his own. Something else you can count on if you spend any time with Steve Ewing is that he’ll finish off the story about the driver – and just about everyone else who hails him – by saying, “You should talk to him.”

But first let’s talk about the kind of work Steve does. He’s building a pier in a placid corner of Edgartown harbor on this cool but sunny afternoon. His barge is built of steel. At the stern stands a tall crane. Amidships howls an industrial pump with a hose running over the side and down to the bottom. Along one side of the barge lie half a dozen pilings, each the diameter of a telephone pole and thirty feet long. The barge is fixed in place by dropping stanchions (known as spuds) through holes in each corner of the deck; it’s as if the barge is held fast to the bottom by four steel table legs. Steve and Max Gibbs, one of the men who works for him at Aquamarine Dockbuilders, are laboring on the face of the pier, and it will be made straight by setting each piling along the length of the barge, as if the side of the hull were a ruler.

Steve and his crew choose a spot to set the first piling. They use the pump and hose to jet away sand from the harbor bottom; on the surface, the water turns olive with excavated muck (the bottom here was once a peat bog and salt marsh, so the dredging is easy). Max fires up a chain saw and shaves away the base of the piling as if it were a huge pencil point. Around the other end, he fixes a length of heavy chain, and Steve, running the crane, lifts the piling high over the side, lowering the sharp end into the cavity in the harbor floor like the business end of a screwdriver. Next Max girdles the piling with a peavey, a giant steel clasp with a spike at one end, and muscles it around and around into the harbor bottom. Measuring the piling often to check its perpendicularity, Steve fixes a temporary sleeve, or steel ring, over the top, climbs back into the cab of the crane, and drops a whanging, thousand-pound weight enough times to hammer the piling a solid fifteen feet into the sand and mud below.

“Looks simple, right?” asks Steve. When you admit that it actually does, he laughs and says, “Want to try it?”

In Chilmark, where the last glacial advance came to a halt and left behind sizable chunks of the White Mountains, “it’s hard going,” he says. “Rocks as big as Volkswagens. I like crooked spiles [another name for a piling] for that. You kind of corkscrew ’em in around the rocks.” At the coast where longshore currents run and beaches forever erode, Steve and his crew repair and rebuild wooden jetties, which in the old days were slathered in creosote, a toxic preservative now banned in pier building. “Some guys are really sensitive to that,” he says of creosote, “and they’d peel their skin off at the end of the day. You’d smear your face with Crisco oil so the stuff wouldn’t get on you. That’s nasty in the summertime. You’re sweating under the Crisco.” And then there’s the cold in winter, after the seasonal folks have gone home, leaving piers, seawalls, and groins to be built or repaired before they return in summer.

“We were doing a bulkhead out by the Gut, ” Steve says of a project at the entrance to Cape Pogue Pond on Chappaquiddick. “It was like a big, long bulkhead. That was the winter in the eighties when it was the coldest December on record. It was all frozen from Cape Pogue all the way into town, of course. We’re out there working, we’re in waders and gloves, and jetting water.” It’s possible to stay fairly comfortable “as long as you’re pretty well dressed, and you don’t get real wet.” But Steve read somewhere that at 18 degrees, with even just a little breeze, the wind chill factor falls below zero. He recalls a morning before heading out to the Gut to work when he and his men were having a meditative cup of coffee at his house in Edgartown, down a dirt road off Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. The thermometer just outside the window showed a temperature of 18. They looked at it, then at each other, and said, in effect, “Screw this.” From that day forward Aquamarine has made it a rule that the crew doesn’t work on the water when the temperature falls to 18 or below.

So, no. Wharf building is not as simple as it looks. Aquamarine has been in business since Steve Ewing started it with a partner, Robert M. Green of Edgartown, thirty years ago. Aquamarine employs six hard-working men year-round. Steve reckons that he and his company have built 99 percent of the private piers now standing in Edgartown and at least 50 percent of them everywhere else on the Island. And if you’ve stood on or tied up to a commercial wharf in one of the down-Island towns – at Owen Park or Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven, the Hy-Line passenger ferry wharf in Oak Bluffs, the fueling station at North Wharf or the slips at the Chappy ferry in Edgartown – you’ve entrusted yourself or your boat to a pier Aquamarine built or rebuilt.

Steve Ewing, who was born in New Bedford, lived as a baby in Fairhaven, moved to the Vineyard as a toddler, and grew up almost entirely in Edgartown. He started working on the water as a teenage ticket taker on the Chappaquiddick ferry. From his post aboard the original On Time, he helped his father, Harvey, the Island bureau chief for the Cape Cod Times and New Bedford Standard-Times, score something of a worldwide scoop early on a July morning in 1969: the first photograph of Senator Edward M. Kennedy taken after the accident at Dike Bridge. As the morning began, Kennedy and a clutch of other men boarded the On Time on the Edgartown side, crossed the harbor channel, and sequestered themselves in the small ferry house at Chappaquiddick Point.

“He’s over there, so I called my old man up – you know, Harvey, the reporter – and I said, ‘Dad, something’s going on over here.’ Kennedy was over there about twenty minutes or so in the shed with the lawyers [on the phone].” Harvey arrived at the Edgartown landing just as the ferry was bringing the senator back. Harvey snapped a picture as Kennedy walked off the boat. “And he was always upset about it,” says Steve of his father, “because it went into Time magazine, just head and shoulders, [Kennedy] walking off the boat, looking kind of dejected. And [Harvey] never got any credit for it. No money or anything. Of course, nobody had any money in those days – if you made fifty bucks, it would have been a big deal.”

Steve’s family on his mother’s side, the Cargills, were summer visitors and residents originally from Providence. They were among the Methodists who made a pilgrimage to the woodlands of Oak Bluffs before the Civil War to pitch tents and evangelize during the annual August revival meetings at what is now the Camp Ground. Like his future wife, Jo-Ann Cargill, Harvey Ewing lived in Fairhaven. In the summer of 1955, when Steve was three years old, they moved into a Cargill family home on Canonicus Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Harvey assumed the post of Vineyard bureau chief for the New Bedford paper. And Steve and his three younger brothers (as they came along) began to discover the Vineyard with an unusually sharp sense of just how different it was from the mainland.

“We went fishing and shellfishing, always picking berries and everything else,” says Steve. The brothers jumped into the Atlantic from the concrete bunker, a relic from World War II that still stood defiantly in the surf at South Beach a generation later. “There was just a real love of the place. I think that’s why I got involved in conservation commissions. All I know is nobody had any money. But nobody really thought much about that, you know.” When the subject of a mainland vacation came up, Steve says, “My dad would say, ‘What do you want to go on vacation for? You’ve got the Island.’ And then, I tell you, I think the first time I really, really appreciated the place – well, I was always proud of it – was when I went away to boarding school for a few years.”

Steve got a full scholarship to Hotchkiss in Lakeville, Connecticut, thanks to George “Carey” Matthiessen, a former state marine biologist, and a longtime summer resident. When Matthiessen came to the Edgartown School to set up aquariums in Steve’s science class, Steve helped him collect flora and fauna for the tanks. Matthiessen picked up on how sharp Steve was, and through Hotchkiss, offered the kid a four-year ticket to the school starting in the fall of 1966.

He attended through his junior year. But he had a hard time with languages, and as he struggled with them, he fell behind in other classes. More than this, a tendency to wander when and where he wanted, inspired by his boyhood days on the Island, began to cause problems. A day student had a car, Steve says, “so we went everywhere. There were these caves at Twin Lakes [in nearby Salisbury] we loved going to. See, we’d get caught. And we used to sneak out and go with these other kids from England that I met. We used to sneak into Millerton, New York, to a bar there. You could drink when you were eighteen, and they never carded you. I’d get caught for that.” An adviser sat down with him at the end of his third year and suggested, “You can come back, but–.” Steve laughs at the implication: “But you probably ought to think about not.”

Yet before Steve returned to the Island and to his senior year at the regional high school, he picked up something else from his Hotchkiss experience. Steve would hitch a ride home on holidays with a lad from Cape Cod whose father piloted his own plane. As they flew into Hyannis, Steve remembers “seeing those condos on the Cape, and how proud I was of the Vineyard – we didn’t have that kind of junk. It looked like they’d screwed up these marsh areas and everything else.” Steve was seventeen and about to start a lifetime of work on the Island waterfront. What he couldn’t know then was how much time he would spend trying to save it.

Steve’s first job as a pier builder was with Grant and Carbon Marine, a new operation in Edgartown in 1970. His rookie assignment was to motor away from the barge in a skiff to set – and reset, every time the barge had to move more than a few feet – six anchors from the bow and stern and all four corners of the deck, which was how it was done before spuds were dropped to the sea floor through the deck. He also went scalloping in winter with a friend, David Berube of Edgartown, one of the few men who still goes shellfishing year-round on the Island. Steve was making good money, but he had run across a compelling English teacher at the regional high school – John Morelli – who’d opened a door to writing. Steve had discovered the poetry of Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and E.E. Cummings. “I really liked Whitman at one point. Kind of in the same way I liked Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings.” Steve wanted to advance his education. During the frigid winter of 1976, he bagged scalloping, enrolled in an English program at the New School, and traveled to Manhattan.

He needed a job, and the first was as a buck-an-hour dishwasher at La Boheme, a twenty-four-hour café in a tough neighborhood. “We used to serve the Hell’s Angels at seven in the morning – free breakfasts for protection,” says Steve. “And the pimps would come in at night and beat the hookers up in the restaurant. There was an old lady who played the piano there. She could play anything from ragtime to jazz, and the place would be singing.” Then, one day she was fired. “This woman, who was really like a grandmother to me, turns out was a guy,” says Steve. “No friggin’ clue: My first year living in the city, you know what I mean? Coming from the Vineyard!”

Steve lost patience with dishwashing and the bigotry at La Boheme. At Central Park, he discovered the Loeb Boathouse, with its wooden rowboats available for rent. He took a job in the repair shop, where a Vineyard rube could witness new thrills, such as when Steve saw people feeding goldfish from the Boathouse terrace. No big deal, except these goldfish were two feet long: “As big as small striped bass!” And more than that: “These fish would come up the boat ramp – out of the water, literally, completely out of the water – and fight with the pigeons for the scraps of the bread crumbs.”

One spring afternoon, before the boats were ready to rent, a man appeared and asked whether he might hire one: “Miss Hepburn and I only have about an hour from the theater.” Steve stammered, “Um. Well. Uh.” Just then Katharine Hepburn came around the corner, “with the scarf blowing in the wind, bigger than life. And I just go, ‘Hummina, hummina. No problem.’ So I put her in the back of the boat, the guy got in rowing, and I pushed her off, making some stupid African Queen joke.”

Steve came to like the anonymity of the city. “There’s that trade-off where nobody knows you, so you can do anything and not worry what anybody’s going to think about you. You’ve got to learn to get over that, living in a small town. But cities are really composed of lots of little small towns. You get these areas where you live – you go to the same pharmacy, the same liquor store, the same coffee shop.” His studies at the New School went well – he began to write poetry of his own, working up the nerve to read it aloud in workshops. But he also felt a call to go home. The small towns he knew best and liked most were all on Martha’s Vineyard.

Steve started Aquamarine in 1978 with Robert Green, who’d gotten into the solar-panel installation business on the Island back when the first oil crisis hit. Steve had risen to the job of foreman at Grant and Carbon, but Jerry Grant and Jack Carbon were getting ready to sell the business, and Steve and Robert realized they could start their own for less. Steve also saw how to improve the ways piers were built on the Vineyard, such as using spuds instead of anchors. Robert’s father lent the two men $30,000, and “we cruised the East Coast, looking for equipment, and we found a barge in Greenport, Long Island, and a [work] boat, which we still have, in Gloucester. And went from there,” Steve says. The only thing they didn’t get quite right was the name of the company, Aquamarine Dockbuilders: It turns out the technical definition of “dock” is the space between piers in which a vessel ties up. “We build the space between the piers,” Steve laughs. “I didn’t know it at the time when we made the name up. I didn’t have a clue.” Steve bought out Robert Green in 1996 and became entirely his own boss.

Meanwhile, in his family life, Steve had experienced great happiness and tragedy, the two sometimes colliding. In February 1985, he married Claudia Lubell of Scarsdale, New York, a founder and now assistant director of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury. While on their honeymoon, Steve’s youngest brother, Scotty, was killed in a car accident near the West Chop Light after leaving a party one night. Ten years later, after a sudden illness, his father died, and less than two months after that so did his immediate younger brother, Doug, after a five-year fight against melanoma.

“I’ll tell you one thing that helped,” says Steve, “when someone younger dies, or something happens that’s out of the ordinary, dramatic, all of a sudden – I think especially in a small town – people come up to you and say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and then they’ll share with you a similar experience they’ve had. And you would never know otherwise. You realize everybody is constantly going through this same kind of thing at a different time: ‘I lost my brother back in the thirties or in the forties, when I was young.’ It kind of unites you. You feel this real sense of unity between people.”

Steve wrote poems about both Scotty and Doug after they died, and these were published in the Vineyard Gazette. To Vineyarders who knew both young men, it appeared that Steve had found a way to direct his emotions into rather simple, meaningful language – sometimes iambic, like a heartbeat, sometimes soothing, in a series of rhymed couplets, like these lines from his poem, “Skirts,” about Scotty: “Always running / youngest brother / pushing harder / loved to wander” and “We miss the love your body brought / warm kisses / soft embrace / your fluid run / your arms and legs / your tender laughing face.” What the brothers had each done with their lives and how they were regarded by others seemed almost to float off the page.

From time to time, other Steve Ewing poems have been published in the paper. He often evokes places and things that Island folk recall and care about, as in these stanzas from “The Bunker Is Leaving”:

Nothing will ever stay here forever

We live on a sandbar / Of swift moving tides

But I hope my kids / Catch other bunkers

Dig their feet deep / Into hot Island sand

Run with the wind / And jump off the railings

Smell the salt breeze / Hold time in their hands

Nowadays, when someone dies, spouses or children or friends will sometimes ask Steve to compose a poem about them. He may read it at the service, the Gazette may publish it, and this private and public ritual seems to carry a lot of meaning for those who carry on.

Steve and Claudia have two sons, Nicholas (Niko), twenty-one, a photographer who’s taking time off after finishing his second year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Christopher (Arno), eighteen and a senior at the regional high school. They go camping together in Europe. Steve says plainly that after so much loss, he’s fervent that a family tradition of gathering for card games, cribbage, and Sunday suppers continue. This means not only Steve’s family, but also his mother, surviving brother Colin, Doug’s wife Lizzie, and all the nephews and nieces. When one of them opens in a school play or shows at an art gallery, Steve and Claudia make it a point to go.

There’s something else that seems to come from the shadows of loss. Steve saves things – the poems he wrote as a boy and younger man, family pictures going back to the first Cargills on the Vineyard, his father’s newspaper columns, even relics he’s dug up from the harbor bottom. What’s particularly interesting is that he’s also dedicated a significant part of his life to saving the Island from things like – well – too much pier building. For Steve, this goes straight back to those days when he and his brothers used to shellfish and pick berries together wherever they pleased, then flying into Hyannis and seeing condos rise on shorelines where condos shouldn’t be.

“Yeah, I used to get pissed. I used to get pissed when the Island in the eighties was going nuts with building,” he says. Steve’s rear-guard action was to join committee after committee – be they town or Island – to fight and regulate it. On the Edgartown Marine Advisory Committee, he helped push through rules that prohibit or restrict piers in Cape Pogue Pond and much of Katama Bay (new piers mean new powerboats and possible new sources of pollution). On the town dredge advisory committee, he advocated for projects that help keep harbors navigable and shellfishing areas flushed and clean. On a great-pond committee, he helped lay in rules that restrict the horsepower on outboard engines in Edgartown Great Pond, prohibit toxic bottom paint on hulls, and keep new buildings (together with the septic and nitrogen-loading problems that come with them) back from the shoreline and the water itself. On an advisory board for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, he supported districts of critical planning concern, which identify sensitive areas – such as the shoreline around a great pond or bay – that may not be sufficiently protected by town regulations.

“The word ‘environmentalist’ used to be a bad word [among Island working folk],” Steve says. “They thought you were a kind of wide-eyed, crazy nut case. But now the fishermen – the surf-casters, the commercial fishermen – Christ, when I first started out, remember they used to have those Styrofoam coffee cups? Everybody that I remember, and this was very common, would finish their cup of coffee in the morning and throw the cup in the harbor. You couldn’t conceive of doing that now – never mind it not being Styrofoam. Who does that now? We’ve changed as a community. We’ve grown. I see hope. And I look at how the community has evolved from how bad it had been before, even if we were ignorant of what we were doing.”

So, after the hard times and the hard work, Steve remains an optimist. Mainly this is because as time passes, he senses that more and more people recognize what folks who work on the water have known from the beginning – that if you can’t count on one another, you don’t survive. If the story must be about Steve Ewing, this is what he wants it to say:

“When you own a marine business, or you own a boat even, you’re really tied to it. Twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven- days-a-week baby-sitting job you got. Where it doesn’t take much for something to screw up. Every boat you have, every knot that ties every boat or barge has to be done right, or the wind will change, or the tide will come up or go down, and it just always wants to sink it or screw it up. So you’ve got to be aware of that summer and winter, you know. We don’t put our stuff away when the weather gets cold. That’s when we’re actually out doing it. And so whenever there’s a storm or a problem, you’ll see people come out of the woodwork and go to the key places where the boats are, and checking on their stuff – but also checking on everybody else’s stuff. And you see something, you call somebody.”

This interdependency applies inland too, to life on the Vineyard as a whole: “It’s really the people,” he says, “all the people you associate with on an intimate level; it’s like a big family, you know? You may never sit down to a meal together necessarily. But you’re that close. And that’s what it’s like.”