Mature Living Special Section: Blaine man recounts a long life on the sea

Published on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 by By Tara Nelson

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Sturgill on Walrus Island, Alaska. “Blaine is the best place on the west coast, and I’ve lived in some really neat places. I love the people and the quality of life. It’s like Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, and it’s small enough where one person can actually make a difference. It's that quality of life that makes Blaine so precious to me.”  Courtesy photos


Blaine resident Richard Sturgill doesn’t have many regrets in life, but one thing he’ll never do again is jump in the middle of a pod of humpback whales.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” he said. “I felt like I was naked in the jungle and I was surrounded by a herd of rogue elephants. Then I felt this deep resonance like a trumpet from way down below and up comes this big gust of mist that smelled something between rotten cigarettes and cow poop that just rained down all over me, and it was sticky... I’ll never go to Walrus Island again, either. That was like being on a different planet and I was the alien.”

Now at 64 years old, Sturgill has spent most of his life on the Pacific Ocean from surfing in his California hometown to fishing in Alaska and living Blaine, where he has called home since 1976.

Sturgill was born in 1947 in Santa Monica, California. His father was a lobsterman and the family grew up in Redondo Beach. At the age of 12, he was given a surfboard by his father as a Christmas present, something he later calls “my dad’s biggest mistake.”

“After that all I wanted was to be a surfer,” he said. “For a true surfer, work is the antithesis. It’s like a religion, the more you surf, the more you go to church. You can’t relate unless you are one, but it’s a spiritual thing.”

He met his wife, Sue, while attending San Diego State University, from which he graduated in 1971 with a degree in social studies and history. Sue studied literature. The two were married in 1971 and will celebrate their 40th anniversary this November.

His original goal was to become a teacher, but he said he realized there were too many other things to do and experience in life. “So I always said I’d come back to it,” he said. “Instead, I got into fishing and it allowed me enough time off to enable me to continue with my real love, which was my surfing, well into my 50s. And it is still probably the best thing I’ve done.

 Since relocating to Blaine, Sturgill quickly became involved in the community. When the Alaska Packers Association sold their fish processing facility, Sturgill said he remembers seeing the Plover in the water and feeling as if he had to save it.

From there, he organized the first Drayton Harbor swim, which raised more than $15,000 for Plover repair costs. For three years, residents pledged to jump from the pier at Marine Drive and swim across the channel to Semiahmoo, but because the event had to be scheduled during a slack tide (any currents would swiftly whisk swimmers out to sea) it was hard to give local business vendors a solid booking date. As a result, the event eventually morphed into Drayton Harbor Days, a pirate-themed event that includes a homemade raft race, steam boats and a professional calliope player – all within the confines of Blaine Harbor.

"We came up with the idea for a pirate dressing contest, which I think fits right into the spirit of the event," he said. "It's sort of mischievous and nautical and the kids love it. For some, it might be controversial but for us, it's just in jest."


Tug boat whisperer: Richard Sturgill stands with the Plover ferry, originally used to charter workers across Drayton Harbor to the Alaska Packers salmon cannery at Semiahmoo. Sturgill helped save the boat from demolition in the late 1970s. It has since become one of the city's most charming tourist attractions and $5 tours are available during the summer season. "It was love at first sight," he said. "She beckoned to me and I knew she had two much life left in her not to be saved."


But Sturgill's community service was just beginning. In 1994, he was successful in getting $130,000 in federal grant money through the Intermodal Transportation Efficiency Act to build a bike path along Marine Drive. Because of his efforts, Blaine was the first Whatcom County community to receive funds for non-motorized transportation enhancements.

He also founded Drayton Harbor Maritime, the group that maintains the Plover, and is currently a Northwest Parks and Recreation District 2 commissioner.

His next goal is to pass the NWPRD levy that failed by 250 votes last year. If passed, the levy would add about $20 to local property tax bill each year and would fund more water access and trails.

"One of the things our constituency wanted was more water access and a bicycle and pedestrian path between Blaine and Birch Bay and we are committed to doing that," he said. "A successful ballot measure will enable us to do that."

In the meantime, Sturgill says he keeps his mind sharp by reading (he recently finished "George Washington's War" by Robert Leckie), taking vitamins, volunteering (which he credits former city employee Travis Skallman for introducing him to), and working out three times per week at the Blaine senior center.

“I may be getting older but I refuse to grow up,” he said. “Now I just say think big and do good because time goes by in an instant. And hopefully we don’t have any regrets.”