Harbor master Jay Wilbur works year-round in Vineyard Haven, the Island harbor that never sleeps.
On Wednesday of this week, Mr. Wilbur took his boat out to explore, to check channel depths and look at boats still at their moorings.
At Maciel Marine where the harbor master keeps his 25-foot Parker boat, the floating docks are covered with an inch of snow. A large ice floe near Hines Point covers a large portion of West Arm. Ducks wander the shoreline.
It takes three tries before Mr. Wilbur gets both of his 150-horsepower Mercury outboards running. The sound is loud in a quiet inland waterway. The new outboards were purchased last August and work well even in the January cold.
Mr. Wilbur is accompanied by his longtime companion, his seven-year-old golden retriever, Marlin.
Vineyard Haven harbor is alive and active in the winter. So much attention is placed on summer, when hundreds of boats fill the waterways of Lake Tashmoo, Lagoon Pond and the harbor; but there is plenty to do now. On this morning Glenn Pachico is out quahaugging in Lagoon Pond. He works a long bull rake from the stern of his boat.
Mr. Wilbur's boat passes the snow-covered Martha's Vineyard Shipyard boat sheds, large gray metal buildings which house hundreds of boats. The boatyard employs 19 full-time workers. Mr. Wilbur recalls years ago when there were not so many employees.
Mr. Wilbur steers his boat out through the narrow channel under the Lagoon Pond drawbridge, also called the Korean & Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.
As the boat passes under the bridge, Mr. Wilbur looks up and sees two workers underneath the bridge. In the outer harbor, two boats are fishing. One is harvesting bay scallops; a second boat is quahaugging near the topsail schooner Shenandoah.
"There is no question, the politics of the harbor takes place in the winter," Mr. Wilbur says. Last winter, town committees and selectmen worked on the Vineyard Haven harbor district of critical planning concern. The special designation, which includes measures to protect the harbor from growth, was adopted at a special town meeting last fall. This is the season of meetings, meetings with selectmen and other town officials.
Just this morning, Mr. Wilbur attended a meeting with Tisbury selectmen and Armand Tiberio, general manager of the Steamship Authority, to talk about the impact the Schamonchi might have on the harbor next summer. The Steamship Authority board of governors voted last week to buy the New Bedford passenger ferry.
Earlier in the week, he met with the Tashmoo management committee and the harbor management committee on the new season. "Tomorrow I meet with the finance committee and the selectmen."
Mr. Wilbur says: "Town meeting articles were due today; I delivered mine on Tuesday."
One of the articles submitted for consideration is a call for money to be spent for more dredging at the entrance to Lake Tashmoo. A small amount of dredging at the Breakwater Back Channel is already planned for next spring.
As Mr. Wilbur's boat approaches West Chop, a flock of birds takes flight as the boat's wake approaches. There are buffleheads and mergansers. A thin layer of ice and snow covers the riprap on the shoreline.
This winter, Mr. Wilbur says, he has met with frustration in his efforts to find a contractor to put a stake at Douglas Rock. The hazard to navigation is a large, dark rock just below the surface off West Chop. A group of Island boaters worked for years to have the rock named by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The designation came in November of 1999, but the site still needs a marker.
Mr. Wilbur says: "It is hard to find a contractor who will put in just one stake."
Mr. Wilbur enters Lake Tashmoo from Vineyard Sound with caution. On a calm day it can take as little as six minutes to motor from Vineyard Haven harbor to Tashmoo, but normally it takes about 15 minutes.
Last winter, the town spent $100,000 to have the entrance to the coastal pond dredged. There is some concern dredging might be needed again. Mr. Wilbur checks his fathometer on board. The water depths appear relatively good.
Mr. Wilbur says there is concern in the community about high-speed cigarette boats visiting Lake Tashmoo during the summer and their impact on the environment. "They anchor on the clam flats. We are concerned about that and its impact on shellfish," he says.
In conversations earlier in the week with the Tashmoo management committee, Mr. Wilbur says the committee wants to explore ways to better regulate that area. "We received a lot of complaints from neighbors last summer," he says.
The southern end of Lake Tashmoo is covered with ice. Ice is an issue almost any winter, Mr. Wilbur says.
At the end of the boating season, most mooring balls are replaced with "sticks." The change protects the mooring from potential ice damage. When huge floating islands of ice start to move, they are powerful enough to move everything. The ice can't grab a mooring stick like it will a mooring ball.
To protect the environment and the lives of boat operators, Mr. Wilbur says, the town has adopted a regulation to discourage owners from leaving their boats in the water over the winter without the permission of his department. Mr. Wilbur is a strong advocate of hauling boats each year, specifically fiberglass boats. "There is no reason to leave a boat in the water over the winter," he says. Mr. Wilbur says he is more concerned about the lives of those who might have to go out and rescue a boat if it were to get into trouble than about the boats themselves.
Mr. Wilbur takes his boat over to the waters near Gannon and Benjamin marine railway, where boat builders are working on a new 28-foot doubled-ended yawl.
Not far away, a fisherman Michael Snowden is harvesting quahaugs from his lobsterboat Room to Move.
Mr. Wilbur is about to finish his morning trip. He looks to the future. In the summer ahead, Mr. Wilbur says, he will put more emphasis on enforcement. He plans to have a stronger presence in all the town's ponds, from Lake Tashmoo to Lagoon Pond. Beginning next summer, visiting boaters will be required to approach the harbor at headway speed beginning at the Number 6 buoy, located outside of the breakwater. He is drawing an imaginary line from the Eastville jetty to the buoy and to the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
Mr. Wilbur is 48 years old, and this is his 10th year as harbor master. "There is a great quality to be out here in January when there is hardly no one else out," Mr. Wilbur says. It is a striking contrast from the bustle of summer. The harbor is a beautiful place to be all the year around.