Oak Bluffs harbor had a record money-making summer. Josh Williams, the harbor marina manager, estimated income from slips and moorings were up 14 per cent over the previous year. Total income was $720,000, up some $86,000 from the summer of 2000.
Oak Bluffs harbor was the place to be. Slips and moorings were mostly full throughout the season and for the first time the town offered regular, dependable launch service that made money.
The biggest factor in this success story was something no one could control. "The weather was superb this summer," Mr. Williams said. "Oak Bluffs harbor and the Vineyard continue to grow in popularity."
Oak Bluffs was also a popular place for cruise ships. Mr. Williams, 27, has the results of a survey he did of passengers on the visiting cruise ship Norwegian Sea. The survey indicates Oak Bluffs is among the top visiting spots on the East Coast and potentially could be a bigger draw than it already is.
Harbor master Todd Alexander, 38, had a busy summer. He said personal watercraft complaints were down from past years, although they continue to be a problem. Mr. Alexander said he wants the town to move ahead against loud offshore speedboats. Last week, Mr. Alexander met with the town harbor management committee and gained their support to implement a harbor noise rule.
"They are extremely loud. That sound is preventable; owners have the option to install a muffler on these boats. So, we are not banning the boats, we simply want to establish a noise limit," he said.
This was a positive year for the town's waterways. Oak Bluffs harbor is the bustling center of the town, and both Mr. Alexander and Mr. Williams are proud of the economic benefit that has come to the town through their efforts. Looking ahead, they want more community input, particularly on the subject of cruise ships.
Mr. Williams said there was a coordinated effort this summer to make sure the harbor was professionally run by their staff of 19 seasonal supervisors, dock attendants and three launch captains.
"We were very fortunate - we had a high return rate of summer employees. And to show appreciation we gave them raises," he said. "Part of our success went to the collecting of fees relating to moorings. We focused on how we can collect. It was embarrassing to look back at our historically low collection rate," Mr. Williams said. This year they collected $30,000 over last year.
Of the summer, Mr. Williams said: "In July we were way ahead, we were 20 per cent ahead. I kept waiting for August, thinking we might dip. We were good all through the month. We never died."
August of 2000 was a poor month because of the weather; boaters have had no complaints about the summer of 2001.
Launch service was a big win for the town. Mr. Williams said there was initial skepticism over whether launch service would work. In the end, the program yielded a gross income of $18,000, against expenses of only about $9,000. They used a 21-foot Carolina skiff, already owned by the town. They operated the boat with a passenger limit of six, which kept it under the Coast Guard standard. Mr. Williams said they will work with the Coast Guard to increase the passenger carrying capacity of the boat for next summer.
Mr. Williams said the launch carried between 150 and 250 passengers every day in July and August. The passenger fee was $4 for a round trip; launch service was offered from from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"Launch service success exceeded our expectations," he said. There was a domino impact by offering launch service. So many of the visitors to Oak Bluffs during the day are boat daytrippers. By keeping their boats at moorings and offering them launch service, Mr. Williams said, the town was able to make better use of the slips. "It freed up our slips for more overnight dockage," he said.
Mr. Williams said he hopes to spend the winter ahead looking at new ways to develop the shoulder seasons in the harbor. Mr. Williams said he wants to see the harbor attract participants in the Moffett sailboat race. "But first we have to get the harbor dredged," he said.
A big challenge this winter will be getting through the Coastal Zone Management hurdles involved in dredging the Oak Bluffs harbor channel. Mr. Williams said he still doesn't understand why Coastal Zone Management won't allow the town to put the spoils from the dredging on the beach adjacent to the Steamship Authority wharf, where beach nourishment is needed.
Mr. Alexander said with the harbor now a financial success for the town, he'd like to shift attention to creating more dockage space for town residents. He is proposing a floating dock to be put on the northwest corner of the harbor, off town-owned land. Five floats there would be able to accommodate at least 10 small boats of 30 feet or less. "We are trying to keep the harbor accessible to residents," he said. Dockage will be awarded by lottery. "I have been wanting to do this for five years," Mr. Alexander said.
He said the cost of the docks would be paid for by fees in the first year. In a letter to the selectmen, Mr. Alexander said he expects the town could receive between $8,000 and $12,000 in revenue.
Last summer, Mr. Williams conducted a survey of cruise ship passengers visiting the town. The survey showed that Oak Bluffs ranked only second on a list of favorite coastal ports visited by the ship. Mr. Williams believes that the popularity of Oak Bluffs among the cruising public is an invitation for the town to prepare for the future.
Mr. Williams said that Oak Bluffs ranked second only to Bar Harbor as a favorite port, ahead of Halifax and Boston.
More than 90 per cent of visitors polled said they found Oak Bluffs to be a welcoming port.
Mr. Williams wrote in his report: "While these results should provide the town of Oak Bluffs with considerable confidence in negotiating future arrangements with interested cruise lines, it also highlights several items requiring attention as this business is considered."
Mr. Williams is urging that the townspeople meet, especially the business community, to consider how to address the impact of cruise ships on the town, from impacts on rest rooms and trash collection to maintenance and making improvements to docking.
Mr. Williams wrote that many of the costs are being carried by a private party now, but this could change. "To sustain current or increased cruise ship volume, along with the significant ferry traffic already handled in Oak Bluffs harbor, additional infrastructure must be developed."