Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 15 • August 13-19, 2009
now in our 39th season

Pursuing His Passions

Even surrounded by fine timepieces in his exclusive shop on Main Street, Nantucket, E. Townsend Wright II can’t shake the persona of “Spyder” Wright, surfing legend. 

Nor would he want to.  Surfing and the sea are as much a part of him as the precise workings of the watches that he loves to design. 

Anyone who has ridden the waves will recognize the name “Spyder.”  For decades his custom-crafted surfboards have been the boards of choice, and since the late 1960s he has been a fixture in the Hawaiian surfing scene.

“Both my mother and father were ocean people...we always lived near the ocean and our vacations were always ocean-oriented....When I was a real little rascal, my father would blow up canvas rafts real hard so that we could ride the waves.”

He grew up in Maryland, but went to school at California State at Long Beach.  It was in California, at Huntington Pier, that he first  learned to surf.  “I remember thinking at first ‘this is a sport?’”  With his love of the sea, he took right to it.   “It was very, very territorial [at Huntington Pier] a newcomer, I wasn’t accepted with open arms...but I became fairly good fairly quickly and was accepted into the group.”  He was christened by fellow surfers with the nickname “Spyder” when they saw how proficient he was in walking back and forth on the longboard.  The name stuck. 

The summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Spyder began making surfboards and some months later opened his first shop in Ocean City, Maryland.  “My father was an engineer, and I grew up with that need to build things.  When I first went to California, there were just a handful of board makers, so I decided to make my own.  A couple of friends, Robert August and Ole Olson, were shaping their own boards, and they gave me some tips...the shaping of [the surfboard] is key and it is the hardest part.”

By the mid-1960s, Spyder had discovered the joys of surfing in Hawaii.   His first day there, during lunch at the Outrigger Club, he met Duke Kahanamoku, Kimo McVay, and Fred Hemmings, who asked him to represent Kahanamoku’s clothing line in Hawaii and on the mainland.  Hemmings later introduced Spyder to the north shore of Maui, which at the time very few surfers frequented.  “Lifeguards were giving out false reports to keep the crowds away...I rode the biggest waves in Maui.”

It wasn’t long before Spyder Inc. grew to include additional shops in Palm Beach, Florida, in Rehoboth, Annapolis, Georgetown, and here on Nantucket.

It wasn’t until 1978 that Wright discovered Nantucket Island.  “Bill and Bobbie Rich stopped by my store in Georgetown and told me ‘you’ve just got to come to Nantucket’...I got off the boat and fell in love...There were just a handful of surfers here then, now there are far more.” 

Despite his many businesses, Spyder continued to surf, both for pleasure and to compete and win.  Among his many wins, he was the East Coast champion in 1979 and was a finalist in the National Championships in Hawaii in 1980.  More recently, he’s been in the Grand Masters Division, for surfers over the age of 60.   Just last June, he was nominated and inducted into the Surfing Legends Hall of Fame.

Spyder has also served as competition director for the U.S. Surfing Federation, and was chair of the group that tried to get surfing into the Olympics. (It is, he admitted, a very hard sport to judge.)

He has surfed up and down the East Coast, Puerto Rico, California, Hawaii, as well as internationally  in Biarritz, France, and in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the Canary Islands, Mexico, Central and Latin America, and the Carribean.

It is the winter months he loves best.  “Now I have this fabulous spot outside of Haleiwa on the north shore of Oahu with a break in front of my house...I can lift my head off my pillow in the morning to check out the surf...Conditions are near perfect:  the water is 70 to 72 degrees and crystal clear, the air temp in the mid-70s...when the waves break on reefs you can predict where they’re going to break, unlike here where the sandbars shift.”

“From December to May, I’m in heaven!  I surf two to three hours in the morning, then go to the factory and shape some boards.”  Last winter he also managed to find the time to take some classes in the history of Southeast Asia.  “I’m fascinated by their culture and history...and it has some of the best surfing in the world.  In the next year or two I plan to go there to surf.”

So how did he go from making something so large to making something so tiny and precise as a fine watch?  These passions actually developed side-by-side.  “When I was 15 years old, my father gave me a project:  I was to take apart his WWII watch, inventory all the pieces, and put it back together so that it worked...after that I was fascinated...every time I got some money, I bought an antique watch.  Surfing and watches are at different ends of the spectrum, but there are engineering aspects to both.”

He began making his own watches in the 1970s, starting with his DC3 watch, modeled after a pilot’s watch.  The watch has a surgical steel case, platinum rotors, a waterproof screwdown back, and 25-jewel movement.  He’s constantly sketching new design ideas to add to the ten watches he has in production.  During the summer months, when he is on Nantucket, he can sometimes be found in The Trinity Collection at 50 Main Street (one of his surfboards is part of the window display).  There he loves to chat about his watch collection and his stunning selection of watches by Patek Phillippe, Franck Muller, Vacheron, Cartier, Rolex, and more, as well as his case full of exquisite vintage watches.

Now in his 60s, Spyder Wright has sold all his stores except the one here on Nantucket and the shop in Palm Beach, which his son Edward Townsend Wright III operates during the winter months.  A number of shops in Hawaii and here on the East Coast sell his surfboards (he estimates that he’s made about 15,000 of his unique Spyder Wright boards), and the company also operates a website:  Spyder may have downsized his direct involvment in business—he hasn’t lost his passion for surfing, for the ocean, or for his family.

Wright and his sons were all born in the first 10 days of August, “a special treat for me if to have all of us in the water, surfing,” Wright explained.  And he planning on soon teaching his grandchildren, now 3 and 5, the way of the waves.  His advise to beginners:  “respect the water, don’t fight with the waves.  Endurance is important.”

One of Wright’s newer passions is Ellie, a vintage 41-foot vintage Rhodes Reliant, named after his deceased mother that he loves to sail (see cover).

He left our interview with a smile on his face:  it was a gorgeous afternoon, and Spyder had a date with Ellie.

—   Suzanne Daub

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