Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.
You might imagine that Marblehead Harbormaster Mark Souza spends his August workdays on the water, enjoying the summer sun and sea breezes.
“We don’t just drive around,” Souza said. “We’re monitoring the radios, responding to emergency calls and maintaining gangways and docks. We’re very hands on.”
“We’re carpenters, plumbers, firefighters, ambulance drivers,” he added. “We wear a lot of hats.”
Souza manages the 1,800 moorings in Marblehead Harbor and another 1,200 on the Marblehead side of Salem Harbor. He is in charge of the 20-year-long wait list for moorings in Marblehead Harbor, which has the third highest demand for moorings in the state behind Barnstable and Hyannis. (The mooring wait list for the Salem side is three years.)
At any given time, about 2,000 people are on the Marbehead Harbor mooring wait list. Typically, about 30 moorings become available each year, and it’s Souza’s job to distribute them.
“I try to be super fair,” he said.
Souza also runs what’s called a “transient system” where people can rent a mooring or space along a dock in town for up to 10 days. (Check out https://dockwa.com/.) Chartered yachts often take advantage of transient spaces.
“That brings more people into town, and that means for money for the town,” he said.
The harbormaster’s office collects about $80,000 in transient fees every year.
Other, larger yachts sometimes drop anchor just outside of Marblehead Harbor, which they can do for free.
“I heard Billy Joel was out there a few years ago,” Souza said.
‘We never know what we’re getting into’
Souza has a year-round staff of three, but in the summer he hires another 10 to 15 people. His team responds to about 100 emergency calls every summer. Nearly every call goes through him first.
“An average call might be, ‘My engine died, and I’m drifting near rocks,’” he said. “We’ll tow them to safety.”
Some calls can be life or death.
“A year ago, we had a diver in danger,” Souza said. “He had an oxygen issue. He was passed out in the water by Children’s Island. We pulled him on board and performed medical aid on our boat. We never know what we’re getting into.”
The diver survived.
In another rescue, Souza’s team responded when a lobster boat capsized, and the captain ended up in the water.
“His boat sank, and he swam to the rocks near Tinker’s Island. The water was very cold.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend this year, they had to break up a party with too many boats tied together near Brown’s Island.
“There was underage drinking, too,” he said.
The harbormaster’s office is also responsible for all public docks in town, including those at Cliff Street, Commercial Street, Parker’s Boat Yard, Tucker’s Wharf, State Street Landing, Little Harbor, Stramski’s, Village Street and Crocker Park.
“That’s a lot of maintenance, and we do all repairs in-house,” he said.
The winter is actually the hardest time of the year, according to Souza.
“That’s when we really get our hands dirty, maintaining docks, painting the bottoms of boats,” he said. “It’s physically harder than the summer months.”
Souza also creates his budget, which comes entirely from money received by his department. He researches and writes grant applications, too, raising about $100,000 since he took over. Recent grants include $50,000 to refurbish the State Street Landing restrooms and $12,000 to install fillet tables, swim ladders and signage at public docks. He’s hoping to win a grant for a new boat, too.
Souza grew up in Tewksbury, where he still lives with his wife. As a kid, he spent summers on lakes in New Hampshire.
“I’m a water bug,” he laughed.
Before working on the water, he was a buyer for ATP Ski Associates, where he learned the importance of customer service, which comes in handy now. Then he went to the police academy and worked in the New Hampshire State Marine Patrol for a few years.
Before coming to Marblehead in 2017, he worked as Beverly’s assistant harbormaster for 11 years.
Souza feels at home here in Marblehead. He realizes how special it is to manage a harbor as famous as this one. It is the birthplace of the American Navy, and with six yacht clubs, Marblehead has been called the yachting capital of the world.
“I am not sure that it still holds that title, but I feel it should,” Souza said. “We have won Boater Choice awards from Marinas.com in 2019 and 2020.”
He added, “It’s pretty cool. I’m very proud of where I work.”