Harbormaster: ‘Ancient and Honorable’

(from Maine Townsman, November 2009)
By Douglas Rooks

Most of the summer, if you live along the coast, the busiest place in town is probably along the waterfront. Thousands of boaters pull into slips in dozens of Maine harbors daily – some of them residents and seasonal visitors, but many just coming in for the day.

The brisk traffic usually runs smoothly, which is a tribute in no small part to Maine’s harbormasters – a municipal office that is less well-known than selectman, town manager, clerk or tax collector, but may have at least an equivalent effect on public perceptions of town government.

But what is a harbormaster, exactly? The answer seems to vary nearly as much as the towns and cities they work in.

The formal aspects are well covered in “Harbor Management: A Legal Guide for Harbormasters,” which has been published since 1914 by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service and is available on the Maine Harbormasters Association’s website.

Far from a dry compilation of facts, the guide is evocatively written.

“The harbormaster holds an ancient and honorable title,” it begins. “It savors of tarry rigging, tall spars, and commerce carried out across vast seas.”

It goes on to point out the many and varied duties of harbormasters, as well as the division of labor between federal, state and municipal authorities.

The federal government, through the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, is essentially in charge of navigation except in the immediate shoreline area. U.S. Army Corps of Engineer permits are necessary for major projects affecting navigability.

The state, which has interests in the intertidal and submerged lands, owns much of this territory. The Department of Environmental Protection overseas pollution and other environmental concerns, while the Bureau of Public Lands has oversight of projects such as wharves and marinas. But that still leaves plenty of work for harbormasters. As the guide points out, “Less than 10% of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coastal shoreline is physically suitable to function as a port or harbor area.” This means that towns and cities usually have to become involved in facilitating and regulating marine uses within their borders. Moorings, for instance, are under the sole jurisdiction of the municipalities.

The Basics

According to Dave Corbeau, Scarborough harbormaster and current president of the association, the harbor management guide has just received its 10-year update, and incorporates recent changes to the law, including a requirement that all harbormasters take a basic training course offered by the association. Current harbormasters are exempt, under terms of the three-year old legislation.

Towns are required to have harbormasters in any coastal community that offers public moorings – and that’s the vast majority. Harbormasters are also appointed in some inland towns, particularly those that have big lakes and substantial boat traffic and moorings, such as communities around Sebago Lake.

Corbeau isn’t sure exactly how many harbormasters there are in Maine. “So far, we’ve identified 147, but there could be a few more.” There is no standard database covering harbormasters, and membership in the association is voluntary, though most municipalities do join. The association meets annually in March in Castine, and runs its annual training course there as well.

Behind the placid surface of a typical Maine harbor on a balmy July day lies a lot of preparation, a modicum of rules and regulations, and occasional controversies.

Wiscasset is currently debating a rule that requires vendors on the town docks to remove their equipment in the winter, after one vendor began using the popular spot year round, with the harbormaster on one side of the issue and a member of the harbor committee on the other.

Tremont, on Mount Desert Island, last winter had a lively discussion on whether the harbormaster’s designated salary of $33,900 represented a “living wage” for an area with sky-high housing prices. The harbormaster who was hired ended up resigning at the end of the summer.

And the southern coast has been haunted by a “ghost ship,” a former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat that has not been registered since 1998. It has sat for long periods in Wiscasset’s harbor and is currently a problem for the Georgetown harbormaster, where it has apparently been abandoned – about which more later.

But most harbor issues are of the more mundane variety, said Dave
Corbeau, such as whether moorings are safe and being properly maintained – which isn’t to say they’re not important. Keeping peace between the commercial fishermen and recreational boaters can be a challenge, as is allocating scarce mooring space.

In Scarborough, like most southern harbors, the demand substantially exceeds the supply. While Scarborough has 210 moorings, all taken, it also has a waiting list of 85. Some of the applications have been on file for 10 years, and turnover is limited.

Waiting lists arise in part for economic reasons – moorings at private marinas are also available, but usually cost substantially more than the $50-$100 registration fees charged by most municipalities. Most towns, Corbeau said, see moorings as public service rather than a means of raising revenue.

Operating ‘A Small Marina’

Up the coast in Belfast, Harbormaster Kathy Messier has no waiting list for moorings, and in fact could put in more. That’s in part due to the unusual, if not unique, stance this midcoast city has taken to developing its waterfront after the exodus of canneries and fish-processing plants two decades ago.

“The city has a lot of shorefront property, and the council has decided we should use it for community benefit,” Messier said. The city runs what is in essence “a small marina,” which includes overnight docking (most towns allow day stops only), and shoreside amenities, including showers and a small store.

The siting of the town docks, on a wide tidal river protected from ocean swells, allows an almost unlimited number of moorings. Belfast currently has 360 mooring permits and could expand further. Even at the end of October, Messier counted 150 boats still in the water. “Every year they try to extend the season just a little,” she said. “Everyone wants to be on the water as long as they can.”

What Belfast does have is a “close in” waiting list for moorings that are conveniently near shore. Keeping the navigational lanes clear and providing enough dinghies for access to the moorings could potentially limit mooring expansions, but hasn’t so far, she said.

Another advantage that comes from an abundance of mooring space is that there are minimal conflicts between users. Commercial fishing boats have their own section and are able to off-load their catches with minimal fuss. About 25 licensed lobster boats operate out of Belfast, Messier said. Most other fisheries have gone by the boards, as elsewhere, but there are a few urchin and scallop divers using the town pier.

There have been a few changes she’s witnessed over the years as harbormaster. The city has been actively seeking redevelopment of the inner harbor, and had found a developer for the old sardine plant, which would have been the site of waterfront condominiums. But in the current downturn, financing fell through, and the site is again available.

Messier has also noticed an increase in private moorings in the harbor, which are usually attached to residences acquired by boating enthusiasts from away. None have created any traffic or enforcement problems for the city, however.

Applying The Law

For other towns and cities, where mooring space is scarce, the allocation of moorings is supposed to take place on a first-come, first-served basis, with the chronology of the waiting list strictly observed. Usually that’s the way it happens, but not always.

Dave Corbeau said he can recall one instance where a town harbormaster was a commercial fishermen, and tended to overlook the requests for other fishermen for moorings. “It was as if he didn’t want the competition, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.

Such instances are one reason why the Harbormasters Association pushed for mandatory training. “The law is pretty clear, but it will always need to be enforced,” Corbeau said.

Another area of the law that’s created concern among harbormasters is what to do with vessels that are neglected or abandoned – boats that are increasing in numbers since the economic downturn has forced owners to cut back their recreational activities.

All Too Sinkable

One particular knotty case is now being thrashed out in Georgetown, where Harbormaster George Dufour is keeping a watchful eye on Night Music, a 48-foot wooden vessel that was once among a fleet of 300 similar vessels built by N.W. Willis and Sons in North Carolina and used for Coast Guard patrols. Night Music was launched in 1942 and clearly has seen better days, to say the least.

The boat disappeared from the Coast Guard registry in 1998, after its then-owner donated it to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The current owner told Dufour he bought the boat in 2003 through an Uncle Henry’s ad.

By 2007, it had sunk in the Wiscasset harbor, and it went down again in January, with the owner refloating the vessel each time. After the latest sinking, Night Music appeared in Georgetown on another owner’s mooring in April, and has been there ever since, taking on water.

When interviewed in mid-October, Dufour was on his way to pump out the boat, something he has to do frequently, since it takes on about 1,000 gallons a day. “It’s actually not a lot for a vessel that size, but it does create work for the harbormaster,” he said. “And with the cold weather coming on, I’m not looking forward to doing it much longer.”

The problem, as Dufour sees it, is that state law requires municipalities to provide “safe harbor” for abandoned vessels for six months before they can be sold and salvaged. He doesn’t see that as realistic in a state with such a short temperate season.

Counting from the first April sighting, he wasn’t able to take action about the Night Music until October, with cold weather setting in. What would have happened if the boat had showed up in July or August he doesn’t care to speculate.

He’s called the Coast Guard and the Maine Department of Marine Resources, but neither was willing to intervene after an on-site inspection by the Coast Guard. “As long as it’s not blocking a channel, or releasing pollutants, they’re not going to get involved,” he said.

The saga may end soon, since Dufour has a salvager interested, and the owner does not object to the boat being removed when the six months are up. Restoration of the wooden vessel to seaworthy condition could cost as much as $300,000, and would amount to $100,000 even if a new owner did the work.

Dufour has filed legal charges against the apparent owner, for abandonment of a vessel on a municipal mooring, and failure to obey a harbormaster’s order. He’s been told by the District Attorney’s office that the second charge may stand up, but the first will be hard to prove because of the law’s vagueness.

Corbeau agrees that the Georgetown case, and others like it, suggests that state law might need some tightening up. The association expects to take up the abandoned vessel issue in March, and then decide whether to request legislation.

Who Enforces The Law?

While life along the harbor is usually orderly, harbormasters sometimes confront a variety of illegal activity, from intoxicated boaters to unsafe operation.

Corbeau is a Scarborough police officer in addition to his duties as harbormaster, so he can issue tickets and make arrests on the water. Most harbormasters can’t do that.

“This is another issue we’ve been discussing for awhile,” he said. If a harbormaster notices suspicious activity, he has to call police, who may not respond quickly, he said. “In the meantime, you’ve got to convince the boater to stay put, even if you don’t have the legal authority to detain them.”

And if the incident does involve criminal charges and a court appearance, that means that both the harbormaster and the police officer will have to appear, the former as witness and the latter as arresting officer.

“I wouldn’t want to be without enforcement powers, but not every town feels that way about the harbormaster position,” Corbeau said.

Enforcement aside, Corbeau says he loves the job of harbormaster and the variety it provides away from his land-side beat. He doesn’t see himself as a water cop, and most issues can be handled with a quiet word.

If he ever does give up the job, he hopes whoever takes it on will operate with a light hand. “You’ll need to go slow at first. People are out to have fun on the water, and they’ll respond better if you take a low-key approach,” he said.

The attractions of coastal life do seem to extend to most of the harbormasters Maine employs.

John McCollett, harbormaster for 17 years in the busy port of Kittery, decided he wanted to retire recently, but he was in no rush about moving along. He told a reporter, “Maybe I’ll be working as an assistant harbormaster for awhile.”

Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman, drooks@tds.net