On a hazy, warm Monday morning in June, the Edgartown harbor master pulls into his parking spot adjacent to his office on Morse street in Edgartown. Charlie Blair has barely parked his battered blue Suburban before he jumps out and asks: “What kind of shape are we in?”
He is talking to Shelly O’Neil, assistant to the department, and Sara Tiemann, assistant harbor master, who are standing outside in front of the office door with phones in their hands, fielding calls and comparing notes on weekend events. Last night someone’s motor conked out and they were towed in from Cape Pogue. A few boats need to settle up on their mooring rentals and there is one mystery boat that neither are familiar with that is moored too close to another boat.
As Charlie joins the conversation, the rapport among the three is easy and full of shorthand. Sara and Charlie have worked together for 20 years. Shelly joined the team more than nine years ago. Hearing that there are no pressing situations, Charlie says: “Well, the first thing I’ve got to deal with is a dead seal on Sylvia State Beach. They say it’s big. Could be seven or eight hundred pounds.” He shakes his head, “I don’t know how we’re going to get it off the beach.” Shelly suggests a dredge loader. Charlie points out that they can’t drive on the beach grass. “The first thing to do is go take a look. I’ll be back in a few,” he says. With that, he jumps back into his truck and heads to Joseph Sylvia State Beach.
As he weaves through Edgartown’s morning truck traffic, he laughs: “It’s been quite a day already.” He began his day at 5:30 a.m. when he woke up his two younger sons, Taylor, 12, and Tristan, 11, so he could make sure they were showered and fed before he headed off to make a 6:30 a.m. boat off-Island for a quick car repair before work. He says: “My wife, Deb, is in Boston during the week. She thrives in board rooms. I usually walk the boys to school. It’s about a mile. We did it all through the winter. They did well even in the cold.” His kids may not have been driven to school much this winter or spring, but the car is filled with their athletic gear and general kid detritus. Hats, sweatshirts, several stray socks, cleats, snack wrappers and school papers are draped over nearly every surface of the car’s interior.
Charlie slows when he gets to Beach Road and peers out over the dashboard. “They told me it’s at walkway number eight. I didn’t even know these walkways were numbered. That is really great! We can tell the EMTs and paramedics about this. These numbers could be critical lifesavers in an emergency.” But he spies the seal on the beach before he sees the walkway number. “Whoa, it’s a big one.” He parks and walks down the path to check it out. He circles the seal, appraising its mass and level of deterioration. “We’ve got to get this off the beach. If it sits here for too long, it will explode and then it will be a giant health hazard. Not to mention a giant mess.” Charlie runs through possible scenarios, “You can’t sink a seal. Believe me, I’ve tried everything.” Charlie, who is sporting a navy blue harbor master Izod-type shirt and cords to match, puts his hands on his hips and steps back. “The best thing we can do is take this to the dump.”
He heads back to his car and calls Dennis Arnold who runs the beach patrol, filling him in on the details. Then he dials Jane Varkonda, the town conservation agent, tells her that he’s got a problem on Sylvia State Beach. “A big-ass dead seal.” He’s delighted to hear that she will look into it and handle it. He hangs up and says with admiration: “She is not afraid of problems.”
Buoyed by the fact that his day may not be about hauling a dead seal to the dump, Charlie decides to stop by the Edgartown Yacht Club to see club manager Bill Roman. He drives down Main street toward the club, passes town hall and says to no one in particular: “When I see no life jackets on kids, I will ticket and terminate that trip immediately. I don’t care who they are, where they are. I will pull them over to the nearest shore and make them get out. ”
He pulls into a loading zone in front of the yacht club and sees Bill Roman chatting with charter fisherman Ed Jerome. “The Edgartown Yacht Club goes the extra mile to help out in the harbor. They are a great asset to the town,” he says. Bill and Charlie talk about several new J/70, one-design sailboats, which are being delivered and need moorings.
Next, Charlie walks down the dock to check in with the charter boat captains. Statistics mingle with anecdotes. “There is a 25-year wait for a mooring in this harbor. We have 900 moorings and with the docks, we have about 1,800 boats in here in the summer. Everyone has to work together. If someone is going out of town for a month, they let me know so that we can offer that space up to someone else. We make a plan in June and then it turns into a big mess in July. One year the New York Yacht Club came up with 232 boats. The smallest was 35 feet. It was crazy, races every day. Really fun, too. It always works out.”
As he strolls along the finger piers, he stops to admire a bluefish that a young girl has caught, says hello to a family having a picnic and greets two carpenters sitting on a bench. “In a couple of weeks, that seat will have a one-hour wait,” he observes. He pauses in front of a police boat that has a giant orange bumper around its bow and sides. “This is the latest addition to our fleet. I love this boat for two reasons. First, when people see it, they immediately slow down. And this boat can have first responders — EMTs and paramedics — on it. That is so much better than me just showing up and doing CPR. I have the training, but they have the gear that can really help. If we save one life with this boat, it’ll be worth it.”
After he has made a full tour of the Edgartown waterfront, he returns to his office and sees Mike Hathaway, assistant harbor master, getting off of a boat. “It’s the man of the hour!” he yells out. He is referring to Mike’s recent rescue of a young man who drove a truck off the Chappy Ferry dock and into the harbor. Charlie turns serious. “When I first got this job 20 years ago, I needed to hire someone I could trust. Mike was that guy. In the summer we have about 15 staff members. Some of them are just kids, 16 years old. They’ve never used a radio before. You can’t learn boating from a book. Mike helps me bring them up. You are only as good as your team. I am so blessed. Most of these kids stay and work with us for seven or eight summers. They get addicted to the water.”
He speaks from experience. He grew up on the water, sailing year round. “I’d spend eight months in Coconut Grove, Florida, and then come up to the Vineyard for the summer. These kids wondered why I’d always beat them. It was because I was always on the water.” When Charlie was eight, his mother and one of his two sisters were in a plane crash on the Island. Charlie’s mother died and his sister was severely injured but recovered. After that, he spent even more time on the water. “I did hundreds of races with my dad. We had a good relationship. He was a hard guy, but he taught me so much about race preparation. We were always on the water, on boats. Both my sisters were great sailors, too. My sister Nancy was the hottest skipper in our family for years.”
He throws on an orange life jacket that says harbor master in large black letters on the front and back and walks down to the dock to a silver patrol boat. “This is the oldest in our fleet, I’ve re-powered it several times. I’ve also flipped it and pitch poled in it in a storm. But it still works every day.” He lets off and motors out toward a boat with a Norwegian flag on it. “These guys are sailing for Norway today. I want to talk to them.”
When Charlie pulls up beside the Scruff from Bergen, Norway, two young men are on deck and two other heads pop out from the cabin. The harbor master greets them warmly, “So, you’re headed off to Norway today?!” They nod. Charlie tells them that he’s sailed ice boats in Sweden and Finland, but never Norway. They say they’re headed for Bergen by way of St. John’s and Greenland. Charlie lights up with excitement, “I’ve sailed through Greenland!” The young men ask Charlie questions about the routes he has taken. He tells them and gives them advice on where to provision, good harbors, a museum to visit and to watch out for the pack ice.
As he moves on to the next task of finding a few problem moorings, he remembers his own trip to Greenland, “George Moffat sent me a telegram that said, ‘Captain position available. Boat in South of France. Will you fetch?’” The next day Charlie was on a plane to France. He was 28. He says, “I was with a National Geographic crew and George. We had no instruments. Just a compass that spun in circles because we were so close to the pole. When we got near enough to the coastline, I was using the mountains to navigate. One morning I woke up to the sound of roaring waves. It was a giant swell breaking on pack ice. I just turned the boat around. One of the National Geographic guys asked me, what are you doing? I told him there was nothing else to do except go back out to sea where it was safe. We saw humpback whales, reindeer and a few hunters. Once, I spotted a fishing boat and followed it into a harbor. When we landed, Eskimo kids came running out to greet us. I asked where we were. They said, Fiskeaesset, Greenland [Now, Quqertarsuatsiaat]. George, who had been downstairs writing poetry to a girlfriend for days, came up and asked, ‘Where are we?’ It was the first time in awhile that I had any real sense of where I was. I was able to say Fiskeaesset.” He laughs at the memory. “I said it with confidence!”
When his work for George Moffat ended after three years, he moved to the Island and worked for Brandon Harrison and his fishing charter company, the Ruddy Duck. He met his first wife, Margot Datz, had two children, Scarlet, who is now 34, and Wolfie, who is 27, built his own fishing boat, the Nisa, and fished for 20 years. He says, “She [Margot] got the worst of it. Me being a fisherman.” He pauses. “I quit fishing — I was making 90 per cent of my money in two months versus when I started when I made 70 per cent of my money in the off season — and was fortunate to get this job.”
He moves the boat around the harbor, checking moorings, guiding a few visiting boats to their spots in the harbor and talking to everyone he sees. When he spies the Norwegian boat parked at the gas dock, he turns his boat toward the dock. “The pump is closed. We’ll have to run them to the town station for gas.” He brings the boat up alongside the dock, expertly ties lines to cleats and hops off, tying one of his Sperry Topsiders in the process. As he offers the guys a ride, Mike Hathaway pulls up in his truck and says, “I’ll take ’em.” Charlie smiles, “You see, I’ve got a great team.”
As he checks on the Katama dock landing and the far end of the harbor, his phone rings. It is his wife. “Yes, it’s almost four. I’ll get the boys soon.” He sighs. “The story of how I met their mother is the best story of all.” Fourteen years ago, Deb called Charlie up to talk to him about whether it was possible to swim from Edgartown to Nantucket. He says: “I told her she was crazy and hung up on her. Then she came storming into my office and told me she was going to do it with or without my help. Of course, I helped her. She made the swim in July. We were married the following February.”
He stops by the office one more time before going to pick up his kids. Shelly and Sara report that all is well. He reflects: “You’ve got to keep it simple. Running a harbor is a lot like running a hotel, only, if there’s bad weather, you can’t kick people out. And you have to always help out, provide space, offer help if a boat needs it because the forces of nature are huge.” Then he switches to parenting. “I think I’ll make the boys fish tonight. They are great sailors. I can’t wait until they are a little older. Then we’re really going to go places. I took them bobsledding in Lake Placid this winter. We had a lot of fun.”
Charlie Blair by the Numbers
Occupation: Edgartown Harbor Master
Past occupations: sailor, professional motorcycle racer, fisherman, charter boat captain, sponsored ice boat racer.
Hours: “My phone rings 24/7, 365 days a year. Even if I’m on vacation in Bermuda.”
Raised in: Coconut Grove, Fla., in winters and Katama in summers. “When I was growing up out here, it was a dirt road.”
Moved to Martha’s Vineyard: 1969
Married to: Deborah Taylor Blair
Children: Tristan, 11, Taylor, 12, Wolfie, 27, Scarlet, 34
Pets: “We have a stuffed cat named Mr. Perfect. We travel too much to have animals.”
Boats: A Freedom 21 catboat, “a lot of ice boats”
Skills other than sailing and ice sailing: Baking, “I teach my boys how to make artisan breads. Pastas. Biscuits.”