How it Works: The Job of Harbor Master

harbormaster todd alexander
In his years managing Oak Bluffs harbor, has seen a huge increase in visiting boats.

If you ask Todd Alexander what it’s like being the Oak Bluffs harbor master, he’ll give you a simple answer: “It’s like being an air traffic controller.”

Todd has been the harbor master in Oak Bluffs for twenty years. He started the job when he was twenty-nine and at the time he was the youngest harbor master in the state. Over the years he’s seen a lot of changes, the most dramatic of which is the increased volume of boats that come to the harbor each year.

On any given summer weekend there will be about four hundred boats in the harbor, and over the course of the year some 10,000 boaters will spend the night there. That’s roughly as many as stay in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown harbors combined. And that doesn’t even include the people who just come for the day and grab a mooring and have lunch.

To make matters even more interesting, there are ferries coming into the harbor from Rhode Island, Hyannis, Nantucket, and Falmouth, as well as a half-dozen commercial vessels and charter boats. So no, he’s not off-base with the air traffic controller analogy.

The biggest job for the harbor master is sorting out all of this traffic. Reservations start coming in around February, and events such as the August fireworks night and Shark Week in July fill the harbor up fast.

At Oak Bluffs, boaters have two options: They can tie up in a slip or stay out on a mooring. Reservations are required for the slips but moorings are all first come, first served. Sailboats for the most part stay away from the slips and often raft up three or four to a mooring. The big powerboats generally prefer to tie up with their sterns facing the sidewalk and the parade of passersby.

When a vessel enters the harbor, the owner contacts the harbor master for instructions. Years ago, boaters would call in on their VHF radios but now, as often as not, they’ll just use their cell phones. Todd is enough of a purist to see this as unfortunate; he sees talking on the radio as part of the maritime experience.

Once a slip is assigned, someone from the dock crew will go help the boater tie up and collect the fee or take a dinghy out to meet the boats that go to moorings. Along with an assistant harbor master, Todd has a staff of about a dozen on his dock crew, mostly high school and college kids.

In addition to getting boats to their assigned moorings and slips, the harbor master also has responsibility for beach patrols. Every day Todd will send a boat down to check on some two hundred private moorings on the Oak Bluffs side of Lagoon Pond. He is also responsible for boating activity all the way up to the second bridge on Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach. Several times a day a boat will patrol that area, mostly to make sure that vessels aren’t operating closer than 150 yards from the shore. A few years ago jet skis were the worst offenders, but in recent years they’ve tapered off.

Occasionally Todd will also get a call from a vessel that’s in distress. The US Coast Guard will not respond to these calls unless the boat is actually in danger, so if they’ve just lost power, crew members are left to their own devices. Most boat owners today have towing insurance, so they might call Sea Tow, but occasionally a distress call will come in and if the vessel is not too far from the harbor, Todd will send a boat to help.

And then you have the thousand and one other things that make up the Oak Bluffs harbor master’s day. Like dealing with people dancing naked on the deck of their boat. Helping a boater who didn’t bring any mooring lines. Manning the pump-out boat. Or dealing with complaints about a boatload of people who were partying too hard the night before. Todd’s way is to go on board the offending boat in the morning, when the partiers are generally sound asleep, and announce his presence with an air horn.

And then there’s the annual Monster Shark Tournament – Todd is not a big fan. As he explains, “It’s the place to party and you get everything that comes down with that. It’s rowdy, but then there’s the ethics of the whole thing. Hanging up dead sharks for display – I think we can do better than that.”

But on balance, Todd enjoys his job. In fact, there’s not much else he’d rather do. Other than to help build schools for kids in Cambodia. That’s what Todd does in his spare time.