Cape Charles Harbormaster Matt Outland works closely with watermen and tourists alike. Courtesy photo.

Harbormaster Appreciation Day Celebrates Bay’s Ambassadors

Have you thanked a harbormaster lately? Often we don’t think about the harbormaster beyond the moment we’ve secured our dock or mooring. Perhaps we thank them when they direct us to the laundry facilities, or give us the pumpout boat’s hailing frequency. The harbormaster’s role can often seem as minimal as our needs. This Friday, Oct. 8 marks Harbormaster Appreciation Day, a campaign started by US Harbors in its third year, which seeks to bring greater recognition to the men and women who make our waterways both functional and friendly. 

So what would harbormasters like to be appreciated for? 

Patience, for one. 

“Sometimes it takes a minute to get a boat in,” says Craig Tanner, Harbormaster in Onancock, Virginia. “And that depends more on the skills of the captain than it does our staff.” Tanner’s harbor oversees one of the smaller marinas on the Bay but has seen significant tourist growth over the last five years. As ambassadors to one of the Chesapeake’s most “quaint” destinations, Tanner relies on his staff to be “patient yet professional.” 

Tanner finished his last USCG commission at Wachapreague and thought he’d move gently into retirement with the harbormaster job, but a considerable uptick in recreational boating and tourism has changed that. “We get so many people who have never been here, and we’re their first form of contact,” he says. “We’re ambassadors for the town, and it’s important to give the opening impression as it should be.” 

Harbormaster Tanner is the only year-round employee of the harbor. During peak season, he manages a staff of four.

In Annapolis, Harbormaster Beth Bellis could also use some extra hands. The former Maryland Natural Resources Police lieutenant manages a staff that fluctuates between four and 30, but is still significantly understaffed. 

“The special event weekends (such as Blue Angels Day and the Boat Shows) bring very different challenges to the job,” she says. Bellis’s background as a commissioned police officer helps her expand the position from an ambassador’s role to the role of a first responder for boating incidents. 

“More times than not, we’re the first boat on the scene,” she says. “When I came onboard, employees were told not to respond to safety calls. But we’ve moved to expand our reach to include incident response, dealing with burning boats, health issues, and more.” 

In Cape Charles, Virginia, Harbormaster Matt Outland’s experience as an Anheuser Busch salesman gave him the most effective training: how to make everyone happy. 

“Cape Charles is a commercial harbor first,” he says. “Tourism here is really only 20 years old, and our commercial watermen are frequently neglected in that wake. Sailboats will pull in from New York City and be upset that there are crab pots on the dock, but what they don’t know is that keeping a transient boater happy often means taking a dock spot away from a waterman.”

Outland strives to put his city’s historical roots first, and in his spare time can be found working pound nets and running crab pots on commercial vessels. His relationship with the watermen of the area allows him the ability to advocate for their needs while also developing the harbor’s reputation as one of the Eastern Seaboard’s greatest saltwater fishing locations. Outland has only one full-time employee, assistant dockmaster Christian Spencer, along with half a dozen season employees to manage the docks. 

“I am constantly on call” is a refrain said by every harbormaster, noting that most phone lines ring straight to a human being rather than a service, and that calls are answered at any hour. Two of the three harbormasters interviewed for this story answered calls while on “vacation.” 

“I love my job” is another refrain, with each noting that a feeling of being at home on the water drew them to create a vocation where most seek a vacation. 

“We need positive reviews!” was a sentiment echoed by all. 

So what can we do to help? 

For one, post on social media and tag your harbormaster. If you have the time, walk to the office and thank a human being for their hard work (you’ll be interrupting their hard work, so keep it quick). You could bring a gift or note. Or better yet, bring a resumé. 

For more information on Harbormaster Appreciation Day, visit harbormasterday.com.

Duffy Perkins