By Doug Rooks.

Most of the summer, if you live along the coast, the busiest place in town is probably along the waterfront. Thousands of boaters pull into slips in US harbors daily – some of them residents and seasonal visitors, but many just coming in for the day.

The brisk traffic usually runs smoothly, which is a tribute in no small part to harbormasters – a municipal office that is less well-known than selectman, town manager, clerk or tax collector, but may have at least an equivalent effect on public perceptions of town government.

But what is a harbormaster, exactly? The answer seems to vary nearly as much as the towns and cities they work in.

The formal aspects are well covered in “Harbor Management: A Legal Guide for Harbormasters,” which has been published since 1914 by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service and is available on the Maine Harbormasters Association’s website.

Far from a dry compilation of facts, the guide is evocatively written.

“The harbormaster holds an ancient and honorable title,” it begins. “It savors of tarry rigging, tall spars, and commerce carried out across vast seas.”

It goes on to point out the many and varied duties of harbormasters, as well as the division of labor between federal, state and municipal authorities.

The federal government, through the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, is essentially in charge of navigation except in the immediate shoreline area. U.S. Army Corps of Engineer permits are necessary for major projects affecting navigability.

The state, which has interests in the intertidal and submerged lands, owns much of this territory. The Department of Environmental Protection overseas pollution and other environmental concerns, while the Bureau of Public Lands has oversight of projects such as wharves and marinas. But that still leaves plenty of work for harbormasters.

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