Along the waterfront

With a wary eye, harbormasters watch over coastal towns

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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They patrol your local harbor and monitor the docks and piers. They enforce laws on the water, pulling over speeding boats, confronting intoxicated drivers, and making sure passengers are wearing life jackets. They educate the public about boating safety, and conduct emergency searches and rescues at a moment’s notice.

They’re the guardians of the waterfront.

But the day-to-day responsibilities of harbormasters and their contributions to the coastline often go unnoticed.

“Unless they’ve had interactions with us in the past, or they have a boat in the harbor, or they’ve needed our assistance at some point. . . . If you ask someone in the general public what the harbormaster does, they might say, ‘I think I’ve heard of the harbormaster,’ ’’ said Chad Hunter, the harbormaster in Plymouth. “It’s not really well understood as to what we do, that’s for sure.’’

Harbormasters have been around since the Colonial days. The Massachusetts Harbormasters Association website nostalgically points out that the state law still allows them to direct vessels to “cockbill the lower yards, brace the topsail yards fore and aft and rig in the jib-boom.’’ But the job has changed significantly over the years, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to Weymouth Harbormaster Paul Milone, who serves as president of the Massachusetts Harbormasters Association, a professional organization based in Rockport. He estimates there are presently about 100 harbormasters and assistant harbormasters working in Massachusetts.

“When you say harbormaster, people picture an old guy with a white beard sitting on the porch of a yacht club with a corncob pipe,’’ said Milone. “Those days are long gone. The world is a different place. We have to be on the lookout all the time.’’

The specific duties of a harbormaster vary, depending on the size and type of geographic area covered. There are quiet harbors in places like Mattapoisett, where one of the major parts of the harbormaster’s job is collecting fees for mooring permits and maintaining waiting lists for the wharf and dinghy docks. Then there are larger, urban ports like Quincy, where specially trained police officers patrol the waters and keep a watchful eye on ships, bridges, and oil tanks that might be potential targets for terrorist attacks.

When the city of Quincy got rid of its civilian harbormaster position two years ago, the police chief assumed the official title of harbormaster. The bulk of the work in Quincy Bay is now handled by the Quincy Police Department’s marine unit, headed by Quincy Police Lieutenant Robert Gillan.

Gillan and three other officers are responsible for 26 miles of coastline and 25 square miles of coastal waters from the Neponset River to the Fore River.

“Quincy is unique because it has every type of water you can imagine,’’ said Gillan. “The waters of Quincy are very diverse.’’ There are deep shipping channels, estuaries, rivers - you name it, Quincy has it.

The Quincy police marine unit vessels - which include the 20-foot Alert, 25-foot Protector, and 41-foot Guardian - are based at the Houghs Neck Maritime Center on Bayview Road, near the public landing, a popular swimming spot known to locals simply as the “P.L.’’ These boats are used to conduct inspections, patrol around the Neponset and Fore River bridges, the oil terminals along the Fore River, and Marina Bay. They also escort fuel tankers from time to time.

The Quincy Police Department has had a marine unit since the 1920s, according to Gillan. Back then, the officers were mostly dealing with rum-runners and boat thefts, said Gillan. “Terrorism wasn’t on their radar back then,’’ said Gillan. “It was a different era. Some might even say a simpler era.’’

Gillan knows Quincy Bay and Boston Harbor very well: His father used to work for the marine unit, so Gillan got to drive a Quincy police boat for the first time when he was 6 years old.

Today, homeland security is a top priority for the marine unit. Gillan and the scuba team use state-of-the-art technology to inspect the hulls of vessels to make sure they aren’t unknowingly carrying contraband in “parasitic devices’’ that can attach to sides of ships. Gillan said drug smugglers and terrorists have been known to use such containers to hide drugs or explosives.

Gillan works closely with other local harbormasters, neighboring police departments, and agencies like the Massachusetts Environmental Police and the US Coast Guard.

The Quincy police marine unit has a VideoRay, basically a remote-controlled submarine with two cameras built into it. It can go to depths of 500 feet and can be used to locate drowning victims or evidence of a crime. It also has the Klein System 3900 side-scanning sonar used in search-and-recovery missions. It employs acoustic sound to locate bodies, vehicles, or other evidence along the bottom of the bay.

Gillan urges people to be vigilant, and to report anything suspicious they see in or near the water to police, no matter how small. Don’t worry about bothering the police or harbormaster, he said.

“If you see it, report it,’’ said Gillan. “We’re here to be bothered. . . . The next terrorist act will be stopped by a concerned citizen.’’

Compared with Quincy, Mattapoisett Harbor is a much quieter body of water. But the town harbormaster’s office is responsible for about the same territory as Quincy’s, with 27 miles of coastline.

“We have to police all these waters and make sure everything is safe,’’ said Horace Field, a 77-year-old Mattapoisett native who became the town’s head harbormaster July 28.

The Mattapoisett harbormaster has one 25-foot boat - “just an old work boat,’’ said Field - and it doesn’t have a name. They just call it the Mattapoisett Harbormaster boat. “We keep it ready at all times,’’ said Field.

Field and six part-time staffers run the office and patrol the docks on a daily basis. On a recent sunny and windy afternoon, a car pulled up to the wharf and a woman in the passenger seat asked Field, “How windy is it?’’

“About 20’’ knots, he replied.

Field had retired to Mattapoisett, his hometown, from a career in the aircraft industry at age 65; he served as a shellfish warden before he became a deputy harbormaster.

His grandmother - Mrs. F. Gilbert Hinsdale - donated a distinctive swordfish weathervane on Mattapoisett’s Long Wharf, perched high above the town pier. The hand-carved item measures 10 feet long and managed to survive the Hurricane of 1938. It has since become a local landmark, and the harbormaster’s uniform even features an embroidered swordfish logo.

The town’s population has grown from 2,000 people when Field was a boy to more than 6,500 today. And the population doubles in the summer, he said.

“We’re jamming on the weekends,’’ he said.

The harbormaster has the authority to make arrests on the water, but it’s a power that rarely has to be used in Mattapoisett. The rush of summer residents does keep the harbormaster and his assistants busy, but they say that, thankfully, they don’t usually see a spike in safety violations that would cause them to pull boats over.

“We don’t have to make many’’ stops, said Field. “People are well behaved.’’

Other harbormasters say they do make more stops in the summertime: In Plymouth, for example, the harbormaster’s office stops between 50 and 75 boats on an average summer weekend. In the offseason, they can make dozens of stops or none at all, depending on the weather and the amount of boat traffic that’s out there, according to assistant harbormaster Derryl Lawrence. Boats can be pulled over for safety inspections, speeding too close to shore, getting too close to swimmers, and myriad other reasons.

That doesn’t happen often in Mattapoisset, said Field. But regardless of size, population, and amount of unruly boat traffic, the basic responsibility of the harbormaster is, in essence, the same everywhere: to keep the harbor safe and secure.

“We live on our beepers,’’ said Field. “We get calls 24-7.’’ Calls range from people going overboard, boats hitting rocks, sinking boats, boats getting tangled up in moorings, among others. Last summer, on the night of July 4, the Mattapoisett Harbormaster’s office had to make a midnight rescue run to a boat that had run into rocks. Luckily for the boaters, they suffered only “bumps and bruises,’’ he said.

This summer, “we haven’t had any real emergencies so far, and I hope we don’t,’’ said Field. “Knock on wood.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

Masters of the seas
26 miles of coastline overseen by the Quincy police marine unit
27 miles of coastline overseen by the Mattapoisett harbormaster
91,028 population of Quincy
6,519 population of Mattapoisett
956 number of boats registered in Mattapoisett
173 number of big boats (weighing 5-plus tons) in Mattapoisett
1,950 number of boats registered in Quincy
328 number of big boats (weighing 5-plus tons) in Quincy
Sources: US Census Bureau, Mattapoisett harbormaster, City of Quincy website, Coast Guard, Massachusetts Environmental Police

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