Edgartown Harbor Master Charlie Blair has just brought the Pointer skiff back to the dock and, still wrapped in his life jacket, he enters his cramped office. With his big smile and bigger presence, he seems to overflow the filled-to-the-brim room.
Inside the office, boaters are calling in with requests for moorings and pump-outs. Questions are being fielded by administrative assistant to the harbor master Sara Tiemann, and the one-after-another phone calls are being answered by first-year clerk/wharfinger Hannah Harrison, and assistant harbor master Byron Lynn, a veteran of six years. He’s calmly informing a caller that the 25 free daytime blue moorings are for boats 40-feet and under, and on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“The good thing about this job is that you don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen,” Mr. Blair says. “The radio will squawk and we’ll be doing something we never planned for. Anything can happen.”
And everything happens simultaneously. Someone calls to cancel the first night of his reservation. Assistant to the department Shelly O’Neil takes Mr. Blair aside for a quick exchange. Passersby poke their heads in to offer quick greetings or to extend their mooring times. A dapper-looking man comes in to ask how many are before him on the list of 477 names waiting for one of the 800 privately owned moorings.
With four staffers on duty, the phone ringing loud enough to cure hiccups, and the jumble of people coming and going, it’s like being in a blender. No matter. The harbor master’s office manages to remain the site of an efficient and smoothly run operation.
It is not simple. The responsibilities are critical and include enforcing public safety, responding to calls for pump-outs and towing, distress calls and medical rescues. Some employees have EMT training or the advanced Red Cross First Responder and CPR training. The staff is also prepared to manage the docks, harbor and waterways from Cape Pogue to The Great Pond to Oyster Pond, from Katama Bay to Sengekontacket. The office maintains a Boston Whaler, pumpout boat, Pointer skiff and a 26-foot Fortier. Fueling is provided by North Wharf Fueling and launch services by Oldport Marina of Newport, R.I.
Mr. Blair makes it look like fun. He’s been doing the job for 18 years, has it all down cold.
“This is a nice quiet morning,” he says before taking his visitor on a cruise around the harbor.
It’s a blue-sky summer morning and the people who wave and call out to him seem to be celebrating the perfect weather.
“We know every boat that’s in this harbor,” Mr. Blair says cruising slowly past Memorial Wharf toward the yacht club. The office has a custom-made computerized reservation system that stores the identification of everyone who’s docked and moored there. “We can look up a name and follow the progress of the boats they’ve owned . . . It’s like a family,” he says. “We know the boats that do Block Island, Newport, Edgartown, Nantucket. Some people have been coming for 50 years.”
Mr. Blair offers information on everything he passes and explains who oversees what. After all, this is home, as familiar to him as the back of his hand. As a kid, he worked as assistant to the former harbor master, John Edwards.
“Things have changed,” he says. “The economy has forced out a lot of the middle class. Yachting is for the wealthy again. Most yachts start at 50 feet.”
“Drinking problems have died down,” he adds. “We used to need crews at bar closings. We don’t have that so much anymore. So instead of going out to break up a party at 2 a.m., we’re often going out to deal with allergic reactions or falls, or someone who doesn’t have his meds. By 11 p.m. on many nights, there are no lights on. Everyone has gone to bed.”
There was a time when the harbor masters at commercial fishing docks carried guns. “I carried fast shoes,” Mr. Blair says, laughing. “But I like the searches and the sinkings and the things that test your skills. Last week we had a 43-foot sailboat taking on water. That to me is the big carrot.”
Deputy harbor master Mike Hathaway’s voice comes over the VHF. He’s at Memorial Wharf responding to a call for a pump-out. After exchanging a quick good-buddy greeting, Mr. Hathaway stops in mid-sentence to give a shout-out to what looks like a father and four youngsters in an inflatable boat. “Life jackets,” he calls out. “The kids have to wear life jackets.”
Mr. Blair has worked with Mr. Hathaway and Sara Tiemann since 1995, and he speaks of them with warmth and great regard.
“You’re only as good as those kids are,” he says, extending his praise to include the Edgartown Police, the paramedics and everyone else who contributes to the success of his office.