Tom and Carol Donlan found Spirit in 2005 after spending about three decades on the water together. Spirit is a lobster boat designed by Ralph Stanley that features a deck by Jarvis Newman of Southwest Harbor, Maine, and a pilothouse with flybridge conceived by Lee S. Wilbur. Wilbur went on to finish the boat as a yacht in 1980. That’s one reason why Tom likes to call his boat a Newman 32. He likes to differentiate it from the version introduced years after the original.
The couple started dating in 1971, when they were both working as journalists at the Bergen Record in Hackensack, New Jersey. They shared an appreciation for the water. “Tom and I crewed on a Tartan 34 near Nyack, New York. That’s where our love of boating began,” Carol says. “We were married for just eight weeks when we bought our first boat, a Sandy Douglas-designed Highlander racing dinghy.”
They eventually moved to Philadelphia, where they continued racing—first sailing a Comet on the Delaware River, then graduating to Lightnings. After a move to Washington, D.C., they bought a J-24. Eventually, the couple purchased a J-30, which they raced for over a decade.
“In the summers, we chartered boats in Maine for a bit of cruising,” Tom says. “We’d pick up Soundings magazine and find advertisements for a business called The Yankee Trader, whose owner had 60 or 70 classic wooden sailboats in good shape that were offered for charter.”
Cruising in Maine waters exposed the Donlans to Downeast workboat-inspired designs finished as weekend cruisers. Although they bought Spirit in 2005, it was built in Maine in 1980 for an owner who likely used it on Narragansett Bay. A subsequent owner moved it to the Chesapeake Bay, where the couple eventually found it in a boatyard in Denton, Maryland.
“When I stepped aboard and into the pilothouse, I knew it was the one,” Carol says. “I could see myself bringing coffee up to the bridge and sharing it with Tom. It was only the second boat we looked at. The broker thought we were crazy.”
“Some people take months to find the perfect boat,” Tom says. “Even though this one is hardly perfect, it’s darned beautiful. At virtually every marina we’ve visited, people on the dock stop and remark how attractive the design is.”
Typical of lobster-boat construction in the 1970s, Spirit is powered by a single diesel—in this case, a 300-hp, 6-cylinder Yanmar, which was not the original engine. Tom says they’ve run the boat for close to 1,000 hours over the last 15 years, and it has performed and held up extremely well.
The Donlans executed a couple of big repairs early on. In preparation for an Imron coating, their yard found a few small spots of water intrusion that caused damage to the hull. Sometime after that, they discovered some leaky windows had caused extensive damage to the pilothouse walls. Those were replaced by a yard on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
“There’s always something to work on, but we enjoy visiting the boat regularly, having a bit of lunch and making it more shipshape,” Tom says. “And we enjoy having family and friends aboard, including the former crew of our J-30. It’s a great way of life.”
The Donlans have spent all of their cruising time on the Chesapeake Bay, overnighting in marinas as a rule, usually just the two of them and their Jack Russell Terrier. “We’ve been everywhere, from Havre de Grace to the north and the Rappahannock River to the south,” Tom says. Carol likes the Wye River for its beauty, St. Michaels for its shops and restaurants, and Oxford for its small-town charm, which is evident at places like the Cutts and Case Shipyard. There, she says, Morris and Stanley Rosenfeld’s photography is part of a historic collection worth seeing.
Tom has used the boat during Race Committee duty for the Annapolis Yacht Club, the Severn Sailing Association and the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake. The couple keeps Spirit in the protected waters of Whitehall Creek, which Carol calls a magic place. There, they have quick and easy access to the waters around Annapolis, Kent Island, St. Michaels and Rock Hall.
With her high bow and flared forward sections, it is easy to discern that the Wilbur 32 was meant to run dry and stable in open water. The gently raked stem curves smoothly to a keel section placed far forward, which runs full length to a point beneath the cockpit. There, it protects the running gear. The overall length of the Wilbur 32 is 34 feet when the anchor and swim platforms are included. Side decks connecting the compact foredeck to the cockpit are somewhat narrow, but equipped with solid handholds on the deckhouse and a stainless steel bowrail.
The cockpit is wide and deep, but not so deep that boating a fish is a chore. There’s plenty of room for a portable table and folding chairs to supplement the bench seat across the transom.
A stainless steel ladder with teak treads is set to port and provides access to the flybridge. Two fixed benches provide seating for four. The helm console is flat, with the bowthruster control and twin-lever binnacle to starboard. To port, there’s space for folded or bound navigation charts.
For access to the cabin, there’s a door in the aft bulkhead. The pilothouse gets plenty of natural light and ventilation from fixed and opening glass windows. To port, a small dining table with fiddle rail is flanked by built-in, upholstered benches. The starboard helm has a raised seat for the driver, and there’s plenty of room between the seat and the vertical stainless steel destroyer wheel. Three steps down from the helm is a compact galley to port with ice box, sink and dedicated storage for dinnerware. The private head compartment is to starboard. A large V-berth for overnighting is forward. Throughout the cabin, on both levels, Herreshoff-style wood trim and white panels are classic details.
Displ.: 16,000 lbs.
Power: (1) 300-hp Yanmar diesel
Fuel: 100 gals.
Water: 40 gals.
This article was originally published in the January 2023 issue.