Local harbormasters have been guardians of Cape Cod’s 560 miles of shoreline, and fixtures of the community, for more than a century.By Greg Melville | Photography by Julia Cumes
The location, the water, the boats—there’s much to envy about the job of harbormasters on Cape Cod. They’re the most public face of their communities from spring through fall, acting in varying capacities as ambassadors, educators, law enforcement officers, marina managers, life-savers, permit issuers and even piping plover protectors. They also share the same state training and certification. When you look at the finer details, though, their backgrounds and responsibilities are as distinctive as the Cape towns and shorelines they represent.
Born and raised in Eastham, Dawson Farber secured his first summer job as a teenager at a local marina on Cape Cod. His second job was as assistant harbormaster in Orleans. From that point onward, he knew he wanted to work around boats. In 1995, he earned a degree in marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island.
“We make sure we’re the ambassadors of Dennis,” says Farber. “Although we have a law-enforcement role, I like to think that we’re educators. We teach safety, protection of the maritime environment, and let the public know that we’re there to provide assistance if they need it.”
Among many other roles, the Dennis harbormaster’s office administers the town’s public marina within Sesuit Harbor, which is one of the few ports in Cape Cod Bay that’s accessible during low tide. The facility includes 260 boat slips and about a dozen moorings. Given the steady amount of commercial, fishing, charter and pleasure boat traffic flowing in and out of this crooked and sheltered finger of water, Farber and his staff maintain a high profile—which is the way he prefers it.
“In this area, the working environment is so dynamic,” he says. “My staff and I have the opportunity to meet a huge variety of people from not only around the country, but around the world.”
Within the nooks of its 14 harbors that occupy 80 miles of coastline, Falmouth is dotted by more than 3,000 moorings. Among Gregg Fraser and his staff’s responsibilities is to keep track of each one—by location and permit. “What’s unique about the Cape is that the range of what harbormasters do from one end to the other is very different,” Fraser says. “A good portion of the duties in Falmouth is mooring management.”
Fraser grew up in Barnstable, and worked as a ship captain for Hy-Line Cruises before becoming harbormaster in Falmouth in 1997.
Despite nearly 20 years on the job, every day presents new experiences, he says—from working on water quality and law enforcement to maintaining the local boat ramps. Falmouth’s harbormaster office overlaps with the town’s department of natural resources, and is also responsible for a 60-slip marina.
“There’s just an awful lot going on at any given time,” says Fraser.
Even in the best conditions, boating can be challenging around Chatham, which is bordered by the roiling Atlantic Ocean to the east, and current-driven Nantucket Sound to the south—then there’s Pleasant Bay. Just when you think you know how to navigate its constantly shifting shoals, they shift again. For these reasons, the town’s harbormaster’s office sets up and maintains 200 navigation aids, and oversees a robust marine patrol during the height of the summer season.
“If there’s a public-safety issue on the water, we’re the local authority for it,” says harbormaster Stuart Smith.
Smith grew up inland, in Westford, Mass., but spent his summers in Chatham with his family. In 1983 he moved to the town permanently as an adult, attending college and working for Chatham Fish & Lobster. He later took the job as assistant harbormaster and was promoted to the head role in 1999. In addition to its traditional duties, his office also operates the Mitchell River Bridge, provides lifeguard coverage for local beaches, and operates and maintains the town fish pier.
The wide array of roles is what makes the Chatham harbormaster’s job so appealing, Smith says. “You might be attending engineering meetings for improvements to the waterways, or setting a buoy, or painting a boat, burying a whale, towing a shark, or performing some sort of law-enforcement function. That’s what makes it interesting.”
Maybe it’s the history, the scenery, the culture, or even just the location; but for whatever reason, Provincetown possesses an almost magnetic pull for passing boaters—as Harbormaster Rex McKinsey can attest. He first washed ashore within the town’s broad, protected harbor in 1995. At the time, he had just left New Orleans on the first leg of a planned round-the-world cruise on a sailboat he had bought.
“I had some friends in Provincetown, and I thought ‘I’ll just stop by and visit,’” McKinsey says. “I did just that, and never got around the world. I ended up staying in town.”
He took over the harbormaster position a decade later, in 2005. He sees his role in the job in Provincetown as “public safety first, but I couple public education with that.” Another important aspect is environmental protection.
“The harbormasters are the interface between the water and the land,” says McKinsey. They take on roles in dealing with water quality, to beach erosion, to even stranded sea turtles and beached whales.
In his work, he’s also the interface with the vibrant community of ship captains on the fishing and commercial boats. “It is the greatest job I’ve ever had, the greatest job in town. My view is awesome. The fishermen we work with out here, there’s a reason they go to sea in order to go to work. It can be dangerous out there for them, but it’s beautiful. I’m around real people. It’s an amazing environment to be in.”