Manning the front lines of the Island economy, Vineyard harbor masters often see business trends before merchants do. As summer draws to an end, four of the five Island harbor masters told the Gazette that a season typically busy in some regards was even busier than normal in others.

Harbors in at least three of the Island towns become floating metropolises during the summer. Empty in the winter, they fill with summer visitors, hosting the floating homes of families, couples and solo sailors.

Vineyard Haven harbor master Jay Wilbur said yesterday that the idyllic weather this summer saved boating business on the Island. If the economy made some tourists think twice about coming here, the weather - superb for boaters - brought others who saw a great opportunity.

"July was a little off, but August came on strong," Mr. Wilbur said.

The town turns over 30 moorings every night in the inner harbor. Boats at moorings outside of the breakwater are a good indicator that traffic is high.

"I think of our outer harbor as a gauge for measuring how busy we were," Mr. Wilbur explained. "The inner harbor is always full.

"There may have been a slight decrease in actual traffic," he continued, "but I will bet you our harbor revenue numbers will come out at least even with last year because the weather this summer was so good."

It wasn't just the sunny skies that drew marine pilots. "When it blows northeast we lose a lot of business, particularly in the outer harbor mooring field. It rarely blew northeast this whole summer," Mr. Wilbur said.

The fact that the Lagoon Pond drawbridge was inoperable for a good portion of the summer may have helped the mooring business on the outer harbor, too.

The numbers aren't all in yet, but harbor masters in Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown have also seen early indicators that it was a successful season.

Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander certainly had a busier summer than usual; he had to do double duty as the town's marina manager after Jim Hardiman left the position in late June.

"I think that because of the weather we are up every month in numbers," Mr. Alexander said. "In fact, in July we had very little movement. There was not much room to increase the revenue to the town because we were sold out."

Charlie Blair, harbor master for Edgartown, said, "We were booked; revenue is up." If there was a slight dip in the number of boats in his harbor, he said, it wasn't noticed.

Mr. Blair predicted that more money than last year would end up in town coffers after the numbers are totaled, despite some indicators to the contrary.

"I don't think we saw too many big yachts this summer in our anchorage areas. Most of those big yachts are chartered and maybe their chartering was off," he said.

"There is another indicator - our garbage," said Mr. Blair. "We go to the dump every day and our trucks weren't as full this August as last August," Mr. Blair said.

The number of pumpouts, however, will exceed last year's. Each year Island towns offer the free service, because it is the law and also because it is the easiest way to keep the waters clean.

At the end of the day, Mr. Blair said, the good weather probably more than offset anyone's decision not to come. He said the town's moorings were relatively full throughout the summer.

And boating isn't finished in Edgartown just yet; there is still the fall.

Last autumn, the boating season came to a harsh end on Sept. 11. "After Sept. 11 we refunded every cent," Mr. Blair said. "We had no shoulder season. On Sept. 11 people quit boating."

This September, in contrast, will be a very busy season for Edgartown. The town is hosting the national championship races for catamaran Tornadoes and A-Cats. Sailors from 28 countries are expected to compete, and Lighthouse Beach will be the center of the universe for these sailors and their boats.

Up in Chilmark, harbor master Dennis Jason is finishing up his first season at his job. And while Mr. Jason has been on the Menemsha waterfront for years, he now sees it from a slightly different perspective.

"We are ahead of revenue compared to the same time last year," he said. Raising the rate per foot for transient slips from $2 to $2.25, as the town did, may account for the increase. "I think the economy is down. The number of boats and their lengths was about the same as last year," he said.

Menemsha didn't see as many short-term visitors as in years past. Mr. Jason calls them the "one and two-hour dinner boats.

"I think they were down this year," he said.

Enforcement and boating safety were big issues this year. In Edgartown, a death resulted after a boater fell under the propellor of a powerboat. In Oak Bluffs there was a drowning when an adult fell into the harbor late at night. He wasn't discovered missing until hours later, and the body was eventually recovered by divers.

All three down-Island harbor masters report having stepped up their enforcement this summer. Mr. Blair said that with the help of town hall they plan to outlaw personal watercraft - what he called the "mopeds of the water" - from the harbor.

Mr. Wilbur said that his crew of assistant harbor masters, including Ben Hanigan, Jim Pringle and Lynne Silva in Tashmoo, had a much improved presence on the water: "We issued some tickets, more than in past summers. It's not that the boaters were misbehaving more; we just stepped up our ability to curtail their misbehaving more."

"The number of jet skis were down" in Chilmark, said Mr. Jason.

Mr. Alexander said that he had a lot more support this summer from his peers on land: "We had more of a police presence this summer. I didn't get called down to the harbor too much. I attribute that to a cooperative effort," he said.

He said harbor staff enforced the town's new noise regulation. Boats making more than 84 decibels at a distance of 50 feet away can get a noise ticket.

Mr. Alexander and Mr. Wilbur had a common problem this summer - thefts of dinghies was up over past years.

"Eighty per cent of the time the theft involved someone taking a boat out for a joyride and then abandoning it," Mr. Alexander said. "It is a problem.

"The issue is that Island children are doing it," he continued. "On Wednesday I caught a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old with these dinghies. The law doesn't give us a lot to do in dealing with children; we rely on their parents to correct their mistakes. What bothers me is that we look bad in the eye of our visitors when our children are doing this."

All four harbor masters praised their corps of helpers. Mr. Alexander said his difficult task as marina manager was made possible through the efforts of his assistant harbor master, John Ayer, and supervisors Melissa Hammond, Brian Antonellis, Patrick Cummings and Josh Rapaport.