By Lisa Cavanaugh
Dawson Farber has been in and around Cape Cod waters his entire life. The Orleans native is heading into his fourth year as Dennis Harbormaster, after nearly two decades as Harbormaster and Natural Resources Director for Orleans.
Farber’s headquarters is a small white building on the edge of the public marina at Sesuit Harbor, on Cape Cod Bay. He and his staff (one full-time year-round, and anywhere from four to seven seasonal) maintain 260 municipal slips and 16 to18 moorings in the inner basin at the marina, and oversee all recreational and commercial maritime traffic in this Cape town of nearly 14,000 people.
“Most commercial activity is here on the Northside,” says Farber, “where we share Sesuit with an adjacent private marina.” The town’s public marina is home to several commercial lobstermen who fish Cape Cod Bay, some commercial striped bass fishermen, a few quahoggers, a handful of tuna boats, and one commercial mussel vessel.
“The rest is pretty much charter fishing, in terms of people making their living on the water,” says Farber.
On the Southside, Dennis shares Bass River with Yarmouth.
“We deal with the east half of the river,” he says, “and most of the boat traffic on our side is recreational. Our busiest landing is Uncle Freeman’s, just south of 28. We do have some lobstermen, and there are commercial bass guys who fish in Nantucket Sound, but they use Packet Landing, which is Yarmouth’s.”
Having been harbormaster in Orleans, Farber was familiar with commercial fishing in Dennis as well. “It has stayed relatively the same based on what I know from over the years,” he says.
The town has fielded requests for off-season tie-ups from big sea clamming vessels, which Farber has resisted. “Our facility is not designed to accommodate a lot of these larger commercial boats,” he says. “Our dock system does not have the heavy-duty concrete floats to handle vessels that are 40 to 50 feet in length.”
Farber recounts that Dennis previously tried to provide space for these larger, transient vessels; “Unfortunately, we had some significant damage — pilings snapped, docks broken or completely crushed. The boats would come in to unload and leave super early in the morning, leaving waste oil on the docks, or pilings knocked over.”
Farber stresses that such behavior is not representative of the fishing community as a whole. “These particular owners just didn’t treat the facility with respect,” he says. In contrast, the single mussel dragger with a mooring in the inner basin is an “ideal guest here,” according to Farber. “They operate pretty much 12 months a year, when they can get out, and they are very respectful of the facility.”
One major improvement is a large-scale dredging operation this winter.
“The harbor, with the exception of the entrance channel, had not been dredged since it was originally constructed in 1958,” says Farber. “A lot of boats berthed in the periphery and the inner harbor were restricted.”
Winter is a good time for dredging work. Ice moves in during colder weather and the harbor can freeze over, so boat traffic decreases significantly. Farber and his crew typically pull a lot of docks out as protection, but the marina is not completely disassembled. “They have unique equipment that uses a small mechanical dredge that can get into nooks and crannies,” he says. “So the main docks and pilings can stay put.”
Come spring and summer, he will once again be busy. “We have a huge amount of recreational activity, particularly in Bass River and near the Nantucket Sound beaches,” he says. “It’s a very active area as opposed to Sesuit, where we do have a lot of boats but folks are typically going out to a specific destination.” Sesuit boaters usually motor to the middle of the bay to fish, or take a quick right or left just past the jetty to pull up to a beach.
“The bulk of the issues we have here are during peak travel times: mornings when we have huge outgoing traffic, and late afternoon/early evening when everyone is coming back in.” Farber typically stations his Northside boat in the general area of the harbor entrance, ready for any emergency call. “We are the only location, from East Dennis almost all the way up to Eastham that you can boat out in low tide, so we have a lot of vessels.”
The Dennis Harbormaster Department works closely with Coast Guard Station Provincetown and the Environmental Police state officers who keep a boat at Sesuit as well. Off-hours emergency calls rout from the town police department to either Farber or his deputy. “Our response time is a quarter of the Coast Guard’s, since we are right here,” he says.
A new training twist is shark-sighting protocols. The harbormaster association has been working with public safety officials and the Cape Cod National Seashore to address burgeoning concerns.
“We have had many more sightings in the bay, so we have our own internal system for dealing with potential encounters,” says Farber. “We can only put up so many signs, warnings and flags. We also have to be ready to deal with medical emergencies. We now keep tourniquets and quick clot gauze in the office, and in each of our vehicles and boats.”
Most of the situations Farber and his staff face are less intense than shark attacks, but still demand competence — and patience. From running into jetties, grounding on the beach, or jockeying for a chance to launch from crowded town ramps, boaters need to navigate both on the water and among personalities.
“The majority of folks are fine, but we get some people who become hyper-focused on getting into the water, no matter how busy the harbor is,” he says. “We do a lot of trying to calm everyone down.”
Balancing needs and wants of recreational boaters, visiting tourists, and commercial vessels is key. “We have to factor in a bunch of user groups while staying responsible for maintaining the facility,” is how Farber puts it.
But having spent a lifetime on the water, Farber is empathetic to the challenges of the fishing industry.
“I can’t think of a single person in my profession, anywhere in the state of Massachusetts, who is not 100 percent supportive of the commercial fishing industry,” he says. “Day after day, anything we can do, we will.”
Dennis lacks some amenities like ice-making or off-loading mechanisms that would help commercial guys. Still, the easy access to the bay and relaxed dock atmosphere are much appreciated.
“We make every effort to support them,” says Farber of his commercial tenants. “We work on the water as well, so we know what’s involved.”