While Edgartown, Menemsha and nearby Cuttyhunk harbors have experienced average business so far this summer, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs harbors are tentatively reporting their busiest - and most lucrative - boating seasons ever.
"The beginning of August was the busiest I've ever seen the harbor. It was absolutely crazy," Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander said. "I think the whole Island was busier."
Numbers for Oak Bluffs also show the harbor's best July in recent memory. By rafting boats three and four deep and using all of the dock space, the town can collect money from about 230 boats at a time in the small harbor. Mr. Alexander noted a marked increase in the number of day trippers coming from the Falmouth area for lunch and shopping.
This was not true in Edgartown, according to harbor master Charles J. Blair Jr.
"I would say the numbers of boats are down. The people that used to come over for lunch - the day trippers - they're not coming any more [to this harbor]," Mr. Blair said. "I would say we had an average summer. August was good, July I thought was fair and we'll see how the fall works out."
Mr. Blair attributed the drop in day traffic to the price of fuel.
"It costs them too much," he said. The breach at Katama may also have deterred some boaters from visiting Edgartown, he noted.
A fierce northeaster in mid-April broke through the barrier beach connecting Chappaquiddick to Edgartown, creating a deep channel hundreds of yards wide. It changed tidal and current patterns in the harbor and Katama Bay for the first time in many years.
"We had to readjust our mooring fields and the whole way we do business," Mr. Blair said. "We had to adjust the mooring fields because boats weren't swinging the way they were for the previous 10 years. And we're still in the process of changing that."
The current varies from one knot to three knots inside the harbor, and boaters have found it more challenging to dock at the fuel station.
Menemsha harbor workers also cited fuel prices as a possible reason for slightly decreased traffic. Revenue from transient slips in June and July is down by about $3,800 from last year. But business has been bustling this August.
"We've been full for week after week - just every slip full and rafting boats on the bulkhead - and it's just starting to slow this week," assistant harbor master Ian F. Yaffee said. "Compared to the other harbors, we cater mostly to the small and medium boat traffic."
The town's two moorings inside the harbor and eight moorings outside the harbor have also been full for most of the summer - and often rafted three or four sailboats across.
"Sailboat traffic hasn't really dropped down because fuel prices don't affect them," Mr. Yaffee said. "We do have a very steady stream of regular customers who just like Menemsha. We have a lot of familiar faces in the harbor. There are some days that of all the 16 slips, there are 14 boats that we recognize as coming on a yearly basis."
Mr. Yaffee has noticed a shift in Menemsha's boating season.
"There's been a steady increase in transient boating in the month of May in the past several years," he said. On the other hand, transient slip revenues for the month of September have seen a steady decline. "I think the season has been creeping back a little bit. I've been here three years, and it seems like once the season kicks in for us we're full every day, but it's been pushing back further and further for us every year."
Cuttyhunk harbor master Asa Lombard also reported a slightly slower July and a busier August, which he suspected would make the final numbers similar to last year.
"Weekends were really busy and then pretty quiet during the week, which is pretty normal for us," Mr. Lombard said of the town's 45 transient slips and 50 moorings. "I think there were more groups of people traveling together than I've seen before. Sometimes there would be groups of six or eight boats traveling together, coming in at the same time."
These boats often hailed from New York and Connecticut, he said. There also appeared to be more first-time Cuttyhunk visitors than in years past, he said.
Every harbor master reported an average or low number of boating mishaps such as minor accidents, grounded boats and boats needing tows. None reported any serious injuries or incidents.
"People are behaving really responsibly this summer from my observation," Vineyard Haven harbor master John (Jay) Wilbur 3rd said. "I do have some more mature assistant harbor masters around this year - a lot of weekends on patrol - which I think helps keep a handle on things."
Weather has probably been the most significant factor contributing to the low number of boating incidents. High winds and storms spell trouble for boats. Describing this summer's weather, harbor masters kept coming up with the words beautiful and perfect.
Since Vineyard Haven harbor is well-protected - except from the northeast - the general lack of northeast winds kept the harbor full.
"Constant total occupancy is the way I'd describe it - including the outer harbor. I've never seen the outer harbor as constantly full. Generally most years it fills up on the weekends and then early in the week it's not and in bad weather it's not, whereas this year there weren't any fluctuations - or barely perceptible," Mr. Wilbur said. "Any time the wind's out of the east - any east - it gets uncomfortable in the outer harbor. We didn't have any dangerous northeast wind this summer at all."
The calm seas of Vineyard Haven's outer harbor also meant fewer boaters venturing into Lagoon Pond, seeking refuge from wind and waves.
"People discover the lagoon when they're forced there, and often linger or come back even. But we didn't have that this summer. Fewer boats used the lagoon," Mr. Wilbur said.
Boat traffic in Lake Tashmoo was also lighter this summer, according to assistant harbor master Lynne Silva.
"My biggest problem this summer has been pumpout boat reliability and demand," Mr. Wilbur said. "Our boats have been mechanically plagued and the demand for pumpouts is through the roof." Vineyard Haven offers boaters a free service to empty their holding tanks and encourages them to not flush into the harbor.
Although the boating season winds down quickly once children head back to school, Island harbors expect traffic and revenue from upcoming fishing derbies and sailboat races. Menemsha also expects visits from yacht clubs this September.
Cruise ships will also continue visiting Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Cuttyhunk through September. In Vineyard Haven the ships stay on private docks, but in Oak Bluffs, the town charges a flat rate of $3,000 for the cruise ships to land.
Every harbor master is wishing for continued good weather.
"Hopefully, if the weather goes good for the fall, we'll have a record-breaking season - but I don't want to say that because it might not happen," Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Blair hopes the weather - and the weather reports - stay clear.
"Hopefully we'll have a beautiful fall if we don't get a threat of a tropical system," he said. "A tropical system could be 2,000 miles away and people start changing their plans. Fall is a difficult shoulder to rely on."