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The Lives of Harbormasters

National Harbormaster Appreciation Day is coming soon, but most people don’t realize everything that harbormasters do.
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A life lived around the water leads many people to think that harbormasters have it made. In truth, harbormasters may be the unsung heroes of our waterfronts. They’re required to be talented, solutions-oriented and creative. Many harbormasters I’ve known possess the strategic thinking of James Bond, the diplomacy of a statesman and, occasionally, the fire of movie action hero John Wick.

Take some time to learn about your local harbormaster. Buy him or her a bottle of something nice on Oct. 8, which is National Harbormaster Appreciation Day. After all, harbormasters are the marine epoxy that binds us boaters together.

Will Sullivan, Wellfleet, Mass.

Will Sullivan is a native of Cape Cod, Mass., who grew up on a two-century-old farm in Eastham. As Wellfleet harbormaster, Sullivan works with the Marina Advisory Committee to maintain and upgrade two public ramps and bathhouses, 200 slips, 12 transient slips and 400 moorings. He and his crew install, remove and repair all docks and fingers seasonally, and he oversees nautical regulations for compliance on navigation rules regarding shellfish grants. He knows Chapter 91 laws (which protect the public’s interest in waterways of the Massachusetts Commonwealth) almost by heart, and harbor restoration has been a continuous part of Sullivan’s career. He’s currently the point of contact for the harbor dredging project, about which he meets regularly with engineers and town committees.

What got you started working on the water?

I’ve loved the water ever since I was a kid. The ocean is in my blood, and I always come back to it. Early on, I’d help launch or tie up boats, handle trailer parking, work the gas dock and respond to radio calls.

What was your job progression to harbormaster?

I returned to New England after college and worked as a naval firefighter in Newport, R.I. That job was the combination of all my skills, and things were good. After a while, I moved home, met my wife, Bri, and had two kids. Things sort of moved in a different direction, because my wife was diagnosed with stage 3A skin cancer. Because of her treatments, surgeries and our two kids, I took a leave of absence from work and focused on seasonal and part-time jobs. Family is important to me, so taking care of my wife and kids had to come first. Thankfully, she recovered, and then I applied for an assistant harbormaster’s job. Mike Flanagan was my boss [in Wellfleet Harbor], where he was the harbormaster for 22 years. I worked as his assistant for three years until he retired. I wasn’t a shoo-in, though, and there was a regular interview process with 20 highly skilled applicants and six finalists. The harbormaster’s job is important, as the waterfront has been one of the town jewels for 300 years. We’re only several nautical miles from where the Pilgrims first landed, so it was a rigorous process. I think about our harbor’s significance every time I come to work.

Tell us about your harbor-restoration work.

It’s a $20 million, multiyear project that requires meetings with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and even state senators. A result of a year’s worth of meetings recently came in the form of a $2.5 million grant, which we can use for dredging. That’s important because we run the public harbor as a marina enterprise fund. Any profits we generate go directly toward other harbor projects, and that amount will go a long way in our small town.

What are other characteristics of Wellfleet Harbor?

We’re a very busy harbor, especially because we’ve got an active commercial fishing industry that works year-round. Add in the 75 to 100 boats that launch publicly during the season, and we’re always on the go. Sometimes we rescue boats that have broken down, or kayakers who are stranded, but one half-year activity is very serious: great white sharks. I’ve worked with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy on shark-tagging programs, as well as the instillation of radio transmitters. In 2019, we tagged 627 sharks between July and November. There’s never a dull moment, especially because we’re seeing more traffic on the waters as a result of people relocating here due to Covid-19. But there is a perk of my job that no one knows about: Every day when I look out at the water and the boats are underway, I get to look at Indian Neck Beach and see the spot where my wife and I were married. And it’s not just a reminder of the town’s long history, but of my personal history, as well.

The harbormaster of Wellfleet, Mass.,  Will Sullivan is shown here at the town dock with his two children and wife, Bri. “Family is important to me,” he says. 

The harbormaster of Wellfleet, Mass., Will Sullivan is shown here at the town dock with his two children and wife, Bri. “Family is important to me,” he says. 

Blake Anderson, Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, Calif.

Blake Anderson grew up a few blocks from the facility he now oversees, spending nearly every day fishing, swimming or surfing at the harbor’s public beach. Anderson loved the water so much that he got into a junior lifeguard program, and when he turned 16, he became a lifeguard at the local beaches. His studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz were focused on art and photography. Later, Anderson packed his bags and headed to the Parsons School of Design in New York City for a graduate degree. When the 2008 recession hit, Anderson was unable to find a post-graduation job. He headed home to California, moved in with his parents and started looking for a new path. A friend told him about a deputy harbormaster position at Santa Cruz Harbor. He got the job and served in that capacity for two years. When the harbormaster position opened up, he applied again. Anderson has been harbormaster since February 2020. Santa Cruz Harbor is in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Tell us about your progression to harbormaster.

Originally, I thought that I could combine my EMS and lifeguard background to become a firefighter. That’s a peace officer position that works within the marina as boating safety officer, law enforcement and also conducting search-and-rescue operations. I worked in that role for six or seven years and ultimately was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Describe your responsibilities now.

A lot of people don’t realize the complexities of a marina. It’s a constant balance between business, politics and environmental, state and federal compliance, all wrapped around boating and fun. I oversee all operations, including law enforcement and search and rescue. Since we don’t have a local Coast Guard unit in this part of the Bay Area, we have two search-and-rescue vessels and run roughly 100 missions per year. Add in 900 wet slips that range from 15 to 70 feet, 450 dry storage slips (including boats on trailers), kayaks, boards, a public ramp, a boatyard with a 55-metric-ton hoist, parking for a thousand cars and 40 trucks with trailers, and an RV park with 12 spaces — we’re pretty busy. I also oversee a water-taxi program that brings folks from the North Harbor to the South Harbor, and interface with commercial salmon trawlers that come from northern California, Oregon and Washington. We have a fuel dock, restroom facilities with showers, and restaurants and bars. Summer is peak season, but since we’re in California, we’re super busy all year.

We’ve got other projects going on that keep me even busier. Right now, I’m overseeing construction of a new search-and-rescue patrol boat. It’s 34 feet and will cost about $500,000 when it’s finished. We’re reconfiguring our dry storage to add buildings and facilities as well, and when that’s underway we’ll begin a multiyear bridge project, which will involve removing docks and displacing boats. The state has to make the bridge compliant with earthquake regulations, and it’s going to have a significant impact on our users. Last year, we replaced 150 pilings, and we’re going to begin our annual entrance dredging project. We have our own dredge and barge, so our crew handles that in-house.

Santa Cruz, Calif., harbormaster Blake Anderson with his family on the harbor-patrol boat. 

Santa Cruz, Calif., harbormaster Blake Anderson with his family on the harbor-patrol boat. 

Sheila Lucey, Nantucket, Mass.

Sheila Lucey has spent her life on boats. The Boston-area native joined the Coast Guard out of high school, but her life took a dramatic turn. “As a kid, I was fascinated by Coast Guard ships coming into port in towns like Gloucester and Boston Harbor,” she says. “I enlisted because I thought it’d be a fun four years. Those four years turned into a quarter century of a career spread throughout coastal New England towns, Cape Cod and the Islands.”

One deployment dropped Lucey in the middle of drug-and-immigration action in Cuba and Haiti. “It’s been an interesting career, right up to my final [search-and-rescue] assignment at Brant Point, Nantucket,” she says. As she was planning to leave the Coast Guard, the Nantucket harbormaster position opened up. Lucey has overseen island harbor operations since 2012.

What is it like being the harbormaster on Nantucket?

What makes Nantucket unique is that the boating population has a seasonal swing. We’re located 30 miles from the mainland, and our annual population of about 11,000 increases to more than 50,000 during the summer. It’s a tremendous shift. My staff and I oversee the island’s three harbors: Nantucket, Madaket and Polpis. In total, we have 100 slips, 12 commercial slips, eight transient slips, 1,800 private moorings and 125 rental moorings. Every week, we host several cruise ships that drop anchor off the island and launch tenders with vacationers ashore for the day. On top of that, we welcome more than 30 ferries to the island every day. So we’re constantly in motion.

Our seasonal employee swing is big, too. I work with three full-time assistant harbormasters and 16 employees on the docks. I also oversee the nine beaches, and hire and train 55 lifeguards. We’ll meet every morning at 7 a.m. to check messages, identify issues that need to be solved and create a daily activity brief. We’ll talk about tides, currents and rip-current advisories so we know what conditions our boaters and swimmers will encounter, then conduct training sessions. After deploying the lifeguards and ATV patrol, our recreational boating safety patrol will check the harbor, the moorings, the channel markers and the general physical plant. We’ve got two public boat ramps at Madaket and one in Nantucket Harbor, so we’ll help and assist where necessary. Most days are pretty orderly, but it gets exciting when storms blow in from the east-northeast. Hauling our volume of boats in a very short time requires a lot of focus and patience.

What have you experienced recently, with the spike in boating interest?

Boating is the ultimate form of social distancing, so for the past few seasons, owners have splashed their boats much earlier and left them in the water much later. Island life is busy, but it’s a whole lot of fun. The pace slows down in the fall, but we still have an active commercial fleet and work with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy throughout the year to help with shark detection. There are always docks to haul and repair. Next year’s boating season comes much faster than you’d think.

Jordan Glidden, Elliott Bay Marina, Seattle

Jordan Glidden, a West Seattle native, grew up on ski boats and then moved to center consoles and larger powerboats, ultimately captaining his father’s 48-foot Tiara up Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands, Lake Washington and Desolation Sound. He studied international business at Washington State University, and also studied in Florence, Italy, to earn international business credits. Returning home to finish college, he took an accounting job at Elliott Bay Marina. Later, he worked as a logistics coordinator for a Hawaiian seafood business, but before long was asked if he would be interested in coming back as assistant harbormaster. He then became harbormaster and now oversees the largest private marina on the West Coast.

Harbormaster Jordan Glidden oversees the largest private marina on the West Coast.

Harbormaster Jordan Glidden oversees the largest private marina on the West Coast.

Tell us about your role as harbormaster at such a large facility.

At Elliott Bay, we focus on recreational boats. We have 1,200 slips with about a 50-50 mix of power- to sailboats. We can accommodate 15-foot boats for folks who like to go crabbing, right on up to 300-foot superyachts. We don’t have a ramp, but we do have a fuel dock, a marina, two restaurants and three boat-repair businesses ranging from hard and soft goods to engine repair and boat detailing.

We treat our boaters like family, and we’re much more than just a place to dock your boat. I usually arrive at the office at 7:30 and start my day by walking the docks. I’ll make a punch list for my staff that includes regular cleaning, line and boat checks, and repairs when needed. Then I’ll move into the office to assign our reservations. Our temperate climate means we’re busy all year long, so much so that we staff 24/7 for 365 days per year. We run a lot of regular events, from the 10-week Downtown Sailing Series on Thursdays with live bands, food and drinks, to floating concerts and customer socials. We have a lot of boaters who travel for extended times. Some are out cruising for two or three months, and we created a transient rental program. We’ll rent out their slips and credit their accounts to offset their expenses while they are away. It’s a value-add that we do for our customers, and it works out great all around.

Seattle is a major city, so you must work often with officials. Can you tell us about that?

I can see downtown from one side of my office and the Olympic Peninsula from the other. To a boater, that means we have daily ferries that regularly run from Seattle to both Bainbridge Island and Bremerton. They leave quite a wake, and I recently spent a lot of time planning and working with local agencies to replace our 1,000-foot dock on our east end. That dock serves as a break wall to flatten out the waves coming from the ferries, as well as the main berthing locations for our larger vessels.

I love the maritime industry because it’s a blend of my passions and profession. That said, when I have a day off, I like to do something else. If I don’t travel around to see family or friends, you can find me on a golf course somewhere. But after a day, I’m always itching to get back to the water, where I belong. 

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.



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