Meet NH's harbormaster

New Hampshire Union Leader
November 17. 2012 10:25PM
Portsmouth's chief harbor master, Tracy R. Shattuck of the New Hampshire Division of Ports and Harbors, stands aboard one of the division's newer boat,s docked at the state pier on Market Street near the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)
PORTSMOUTH -- With an "office" that spans 11 acres, Tracy Shattuck has a view at work many would envy.

As chief harbormaster for the state's Division of Ports and Harbors, Shattuck spends hours at sea, patrolling the harbors and rivers along the New Hampshire coastline. But ask about the job, and he'll say it's much more than a daily pleasure cruise. From issuing permits for moorings, to assisting in search and rescue operations, to securing the state's largest port of call, Shattuck feels the most important part of the job is his daily interaction with fellow sailors.

"We work very hard not to be a stereotypical state agency - we try to have a human face," said Shattuck, a Portsmouth resident. "We get out there and work with folks, try to help them understand what they are supposed to do. We try to help folks get to the water. It's a public asset, and we try to manage and enhance folks' ability to get to it and enjoy that resource. And I think we've succeeded."

Shattuck, along with Deputy Chief Harbormaster Grant Nichols and seven part-time regional harbormasters, is responsible for patrolling the tidal waters along the state's coastline from Portsmouth Harbor through communities that include Rye, Hampton, Seabrook, Exeter, Durham and Newmarket, and up to the Dover Dam. At the state piers in Portsmouth, Shattuck and his staff welcome between 12 and 14 scrap metal boats a year, plus three or four more ships hauling tons of salt as cargo.

According to Shattuck, the days when a harbormaster may bide his time sitting on a deck chair and scanning the horizon for incoming ships are long gone.

"It's an old term, harbormaster, and historically referred to the guy in charge of the harbor," said Shattuck. "It has evolved from that, a great deal actually. There are many more duties we are responsible for today."

For Shattuck, a typical day begins at 8:30 a.m. - assuming the phone didn't ring before that.

Varied days

"We are on call and available 24/7," said Shattuck. "We'll get called out for emergencies, to assist law enforcement personnel. Every once in a while you get a call for a boat that is sinking on its moorings. Whatever they need, we're available."

Most recently, Shattuck and Nichols assisted in a search of the Piscataqua River for the body of murdered University of New Hampshire student Elizabeth "Lizzie" Marriott, 19. Her body has yet to be found.

Emergency calls aside, Shattuck said his typical workday begins by heading out on a department boat, looking at navigation aids and patrolling the Portsmouth harbor area.

'I'm looking to see what's new and different with the boats, what belongs and what doesn't,' said Shattuck. 'Making sure the rules are working properly and people are complying.

'In this job, in my opinion, you have to get out and talk to the fishermen - walk the pier, talk to folks, hear their concerns. Make sure no one is jumping boats, stealing fish-finders. Hear what's happening out there. If we sat around the office all day, nobody's going to tell us anything.

'It's a lot like community policing. Get to know people - they'll tell you what's working and what's not, and when there's a problem.'

Walking a beat, on water

Policing is something Shattuck knows a bit about. After graduating from Maine Maritime Academy in 1983, he found sporadic work in the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet, signing on for brief tours when an established crewman would take a vacation. On the advice of a friend in the Portsmouth Police Department, he went for a ride-along and decided law enforcement was something he would enjoy.

He was a member of the Dover Police Department from 1988 to 1992. Then, after teaching scuba diving in Wolfeboro for a bit, he was hired by Alton police, rising to the rank of lieutenant over a 10-year career.

Then he saw a posting for the state harbormaster's job.

'I was tripping through life, gathering various eclectic skills that I never thought would jell into this one profession,' said Shattuck. 'This job became open, and what they were looking for was someone who knew something about boats and shipping, who knew something about scuba diving and who was a certified police officer. You look at those qualifications, and there weren't that many of us in the mix. It worked out very well for me. The path I had followed completely, and accidentally, filled out the resume for me.'

From permits to security

Like points on a compass, Shattuck said his job has four major components.

'Traditionally, the office had three legs - dredging, navigating and … mooring permits,' said Shattuck. 'Since 9/11, security duties have added a fourth leg.'

Through the first three months of any given year, Shattuck spends much of his time in his office (at 555 Market St.) filing paperwork and assigning boaters to the 1,600 active moorings for which his department is responsible.

'The state owns the tidal waters. Everything from the high water mark down and the submerged land beneath the water,' said Shattuck. 'If you want to have a mooring in state waters, you need to have a permit from the state to have your stuff - your block, your chain - in state waters. We handle that for state waters. Marine patrol does the same function up on the lakes.'

In January, each person who has a mooring is sent a reapplication. They have until March 1 to get back to Shattuck and his staff to renew.

'With between 1,500 and 1,600 active moorings out there, between January and March we have time for very little else … '

Beginning in April, Shattuck and Nichols begin placing navigation aids outside the federal channel areas, using any of the five types of watercraft the department maintains. Currently in storage in a large warehouse on Market Street, each of the roughly 150 navaids (a device that provides boaters with navigational data) used is about four-feet in length and cylindrical, with messages like 'No Wake' on them.

They attach to weights and chains, and are set up in specific locations (using GPS coordinates) to help guide boaters through areas like the Hampton River.

'The Coast Guard does the navigation buoys in the federal channel,' said Shattuck. 'They stop in Great Bay and (that's where) our responsibility begins. We go all the way up to Exeter, all the way up to Newmarket.'

Dredging is also an important function that Shattuck's office oversees. Typically handled by the Army Corps of Engineers, any areas not considered a federal channel become the state's responsibility. On Wednesday, Shattuck attended a meeting with the Army Corps to finalize a dredging project almost a decade in the making - the Seabrook/Hampton inner harbor.

'It's been a very long process,' said Shattuck. 'The Army Corps had to justify it economically, but they are ready now. They are going to assume responsibility for the inner harbor, which has cost the state a lot to do over the years.

Shattuck said the plan was to start pumping by late last week. The sand is sucked up from the sea floor, then discharged onto the beach where it is spread out.

Security a priority

Shattuck said the biggest change he has seen in his profession is the emphasis on security in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

'I grew up here,' said Shattuck. 'I was a kid in this neighborhood. This area was wide open. I used to bring my … sandwich out on the bridge and eat it, and watch ships go by. That kind of thing just can't happen anymore. This place is penned up now.'

'You probably are not going to see an overt terrorist attack in Portsmouth,' said Nichols. 'But we think this may be a good place for someone to try and bring something, or bring a person, into the country, that would be used in a bigger target area like Boston or somewhere like that.'

'I don't see this particular 11 acres of land as being a target per se,' added Shattuck. 'But it might be a place where, if they were going to launch such a thing, they might do it from here. Our job is to make it as difficult as possible to do that.'

Shattuck said what he finds most rewarding about the job is his daily interaction, up and down the coastline, with those who take to the sea.

'It is a cross-section of humanity,' said Shattuck. 'You've got the folks with multi-million dollar yachts, then you've got the guy whose eking out a living trying to fish, and everything in between.

'It looks like a small coastline, but when you start getting into the details, there's a lot of it. The job is different every day.'

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