Are you the harbor master?

That's usually the first question from boaters who have an inquiry or request when they visit, call or hail the harbor master station on the VHF radio. It might be a polite matter of course, but it may also be a subtle response to the young face - or voice - that answers back.

In a casual survey of the Island's four harbors this week, there was no one over the age of 23 holding down the fort. The average age was 19 and a half

Photo

The majority of these young harbor staff land their first summer harbor position between the ages of 15 and 17, so the 19-year-olds often have a fair amount of seniority - and experience in handling the day-to-day demands of the harbor.

And most young people who work for the harbor departments stay on for several summers, which means turnover is low and openings are highly coveted.

"You pretty much have to know somebody or have a family ‘in'," said 22-year-old harbor superintendent Kristen Merullo, who is in her ninth summer with the Oak Bluffs harbor department. "My cousins worked here, so it was almost assumed we were going to get jobs," she added.

Seven of Ms. Merullo's cousins have worked for the Oak Bluffs harbor master in recent years, as well as her 20-year-old brother, who is a dock attendant and launch driver.

"This is the greatest job," she said from behind the sliding window of the tidy, air-conditioned station built over the water near the entrance to the harbor. "You get to be outside, meet a lot of people. It's not the same thing every day."

There are also family connections in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven harbors, but that's not unusual for an Island with a rich history on the waterfront. Many of the summer staffers said they grew up operating boats - and many of their parents and parents' parents did too.

Photo

In the two-story Vineyard Haven harbor master station, assistant harbor master Nick Hammond, 21, and harbor assistant Nick Wilbur, 19, both said they have been around sailboats and powerboats their whole lives.

"I grew up on boats. My dad was a captain for a while in the Caribbean, so I'd always be out on boats with him. He was a ferry captain out on Naushon for a while too," said Mr. Wilbur, who studies aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island. "The whole family really just grew up on boats," he added, noting that his great-grandfather ran a steam engine in New Jersey.

Mr. Hammond's grandfather Harry Duane is an Island sailor and his mother, who also races sailboats, managed the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club while he was growing up.

"I'm racing [my grandfather's] boat this summer," said Mr. Hammond, who is in his sixth summer working under the harbor master. "I've been crewing for it, and I'll probably become skipper."

Oak Bluffs launch driver Natasha Snowden, 23, grew up with her father Michael Snowden's 40-foot lobster boat and also did sailing camp in the summertime. The Edgartown native has worked for the harbor department for nine summers.

Third-year Menemsha assistant wharfinger Ryan Rossi, 19, grew up boating in his home town of Chilmark.

Photo

"My grandfather, Mike Renahan, he was a sword captain," said Mr. Rossi, sitting on the bench in front of the tiny harbor master shack, with its view of the docks, fishing boats and channel. "It's cool being around the old fishermen."

Good stories?

"Lots," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for those old fishermen."

As the sole person manning the harbor master station that afternoon while assistant harbor master Ian Yaffe, 19, was doing paperwork at town hall, Mr. Rossi is capable of handling all aspects of the job.

"It's kind of like a hotel. We take boats in, take reservations, sign them into our computer system," said Mr. Rossi, who will start basic training for the Coast Guard in October. "But there's also making sure everyone's safe, making sure no one's doing anything stupid."

Towing a boat, retrieving a boat that's dragging anchor and even docking a boat can be dangerous under the wrong circumstances.

The scariest part of the job? "If there's a lot of wind and tide, trying to get a person in a slip when they may not know what they're doing," he said. "You really don't know if anyone at the wheel knows what they're doing," he added. A mistake could easily cause property damage or personal injury.

"We've had a couple employees break hands and break ankles fending off boats," Ms. Merullo said of the Oak Bluffs harbor staff.

Monitoring and preparing for bad weather is another responsibility that comes with the job.

"For bad weather, we double check everyone's lines," Ms. Merullo said. For hurricane conditions, the staff also puts duct tape on the docks, she said, so the lines slide over them easily, rather than chafing and possibly snapping.

"Before there's a really big blow, part of our job is to go out to the anchorages and warn people," Mr. Wilbur said, noting that the staff encourage boaters to put out two anchors and plenty of scope.

Photo

Boat fires and gas explosions are unusual, but not unheard of in any of the Island's harbors, meaning that harbor personnel must be prepared to deal with those and other kinds of emergencies. Often, the harbor staff are first responders to the scene.

Recently, the Menemsha harbor staff smelled gasoline and discovered a boat that was leaking gas into its bilge. They instructed the owners to shut down all of the electronics and towed the boat out of the harbor - away from the fuel dock - and onto a mooring outside the breakwater. They then gave the owners a ride back to the dock and called in the Coast Guard.

But much of the work is routine.

"Our job is to be knowledgeable and to be called upon when needed," Mr. Hammond said. "For the majority of the time, we're just waiting for that moment - and keeping busy with the moorings and pumpout."

On a slow day this week, six Edgartown harbor staff between the ages of 16 and 21 sat in the wood frame harbor master station just down from the Chappaquiddick ferry. They took turns answering the phone and VHF radio calls. Most calls were from boaters making reservations or arriving with reservations.

But one person hailed the station to report that it looked like someone had emptied a boat's holding tank inside the harbor. Another call came in to tow a boat that had run out of gas. Two of the harbor assistants donned life jackets and speed walked out the door, saying, "Back in ten."

Photo

The Edgartown harbor staff is also responsible for enforcing the rules, which are broken on a somewhat regular basis: no wake, no tubing, no drinking and driving, no driving at night without running lights. They also have to drive the trash to the dump.

"We're in charge of 88 town moorings. Then there are the [over 200] private moorings we try to keep the right boats on," harbor assistant Charles (Wolfie) Blair 4th said, noting that assistants must also work one night shift per week. "That's mostly because people try to steal dinghies to get back to Chappy," he added. Mr. Blair's father Charles is the harbor master.

By joining the Coast Guard, Mr. Rossi is not the only harbor assistant gearing up for a career on the water.

"I just want to stay on the water for the rest of my life," Edgartown assistant wharfinger Sam Henderson, 17, said. "Captain, crew or just get a boat and sail around the world or something."

"I always joke that I'll probably work here forever, but it is kind of serious," Ms. Merullo said. "I'm planning on going into teaching, so I'll probably always have the summers off," she added.

Most harbor assistants readily acknowledge that working on the water for the town is a good gig.

"You're not working on land all the time. You're in a boat most of the day," Mr. Wilbur said. "Who doesn't want my job?"