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Careers on the water

Harbormaster: at the helm of a high-wire act

By David W. Shaw

Some might say Tim Mills works in a circus. As harbormaster for the City of Newport, R.I., he is adept at juggling, in the figurative sense, and at the height of the boating season the harbor resembles a three-ring stage where something is always going on.

Salary range: $38,000 to $65,000 (less in smaller harbors)
Future employment prospects: steady
Training and education: marine academies, Coast Guard licenses, work as assistant
For information: contact local harbormasters

No doubt about it. Newport is a busy place, and Mills’ job is to “keep order in what looks like chaos,” he says. It’s not easy, and it takes lots of hands. Mills, 44, supervises a staff of 16 working in the Harbor Division of the city’s Department of Economic Development, which has three patrol boats and one workboat tasked to manage the harbor’s resources, enforce state boating regulations and city ordinances, adhere to security protocols for visiting cruise ships, and assist mariners in trouble.

“Helping fellow mariners is what makes the job special,” Mills says. “That’s a big reason why I got into it. In a way, we’re like the Coast Guard but in a much smaller capacity.”

Mills grew up in Newport, and from an early age he knew he wanted to work on the water. He majored in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. He went on to build docks, crew on a research vessel, run a mooring business, and fish for lobsters before he landed a job working for his predecessor as an assistant. Mills took over the harbormaster position in 2001.

Since then he’s taken numerous specialized courses. He attended the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., to ensure compliance with the Maritime Safety Act, and he attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Mass., to obtain certification as a facilities security officer; each foray was necessary because of the cruise ship presence in the harbor. He also took a marine patrol officer course at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown (Va.), where he learned proper boarding procedures and how to train personnel.

Being the harbormaster in a harbor like Newport requires specialized training, Mills says, as well as an ability to manage people and interface well with local, state and federal government agencies. There’s also a “never-ending stack of paperwork” that crosses his desk, which he never really appreciated until he got the top job. “As an assistant, you could do the work without the paperwork. You’d just go out and help the boater,” he says. “It was great.”

Paperwork aside, Mills says his is a “dream job,” and he counts himself lucky to have it. Only 13 towns in Rhode Island employ harbormasters, and they tend to stay in the job for a long time.

“If I were to advise someone who wanted to do this, I’d say get your foot in the door as a harbormaster assistant. There is turnover because the job is usually seasonal and not highly paid,” he says, adding that aspiring harbormasters should try to get as much education as possible, such as a captain’s license from the Coast Guard because it requires time on the water. Maritime academies do, too, and that’s important, Mills says.

“Long-term boating experience is essential,” he says. “You have to know the terminology, how to make an approach to another vessel, how to talk with experienced mariners. It all goes to your credibility.”




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