Half century later, grandson at helm of ship's wheel

— In any community, especially one flush with natural beauty, change virtually is inevitable. And the past two decades of growth here proves that point.
A number of commercial and residential developments have sprung up on both ends of the island in recent years, with more big projects in the works. Factor in an increase in the number of major events held on the beach, and it's easy to understand why Clearwater Beach has become a hotbed for new growth.
But tucked away in Clearwater Beach Marina's back corner, which perhaps sees less foot traffic than other parts of the beach, is the Queen Fleet charter fishing company. The longtime family-owned operation is a reliable constant amidst the sea of change.
“My dad started this business over 50 years ago after moving here from Ohio,” Eric Spaulding said. His father, Gene, founded Queen Fleet in the mid-1950s.
“He opened the business right here on these docks, and there was not nearly as many other fishing companies here, either.”
Eric's dad, Dave Spaulding, bought his first charter boat by the age of 21, while working as a Clearwater Firefighter. While he no longer skippers the boats and has transitioned daily operations to his son, he arrives some mornings “issuing orders here and there.”
Eric Spaulding began his career in the family business as a teenager, working on the boats while growing up in Tampa.
After a brief hiatus to go to school and “get a real job,” he jokes, he returned to the marina in 1995 and has worked there ever since.
“I always knew I'd be back,” he said. “This is what I always wanted to do.”
The Spauldings take passengers on full- and half-day fishing trips out into the Gulf of Mexico. Queen Fleet operates two vessels: the 75-foot, single-hull Gulf Queen and the 90-foot Super Queen catamaran.
The most change the business has seen over the years is the replacement of boat engines and other mechanical and cosmetic upgrades. However, Queen Fleet did relocate from the west end of the dock nearest to the beach down to the easternmost edge some years ago.
Spaulding said the move was precipitated by the city's desire to have the more colorful pleasure cruises located in the high-traffic area at that end of the marina.
Ironically, about five years ago the family purchased one of those vessels, the Sea Screamer dolphin sightseeing boat.
“We're content with what we have now, the three boats,” said Spaulding, who runs the company's day-to-day operations while captaining occasional excursions. “If we added any more, I wouldn't be able to be there to run it, so we wouldn't gain anything by doing it.”
While the size of the fleet appears to be a constant, that doesn't mean the number of Spauldings in the family business won't increase. Eric said his seven-year-old son, Oliver, could join the Queen Fleet crew someday.
“If he really wants to, that's fine,” the father said. “But if he doesn't, that's cool, too.”
In the meantime, Spaulding said he sees his business remaining in the area for a long time to come, no matter what goes on around it.
“This place is always developing, and I'm all for change and bringing more bodies to the marina. I welcome it,” he said.
“More growth is good for us. I just hope the city can manage the parking!”
The Queen Fleet is based at Clearwater Beach Marina, 25 Causeway Blvd. For information, visit online or call (888) 238-9020 or (727) 233-4970.
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