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Walking the docks, she's in her element

Within moments of the 42-foot Silverton's arrival at the fuel dock at Brewer Pilots Point Marina, dockmaster Katy Russell and her staff had secured the vessel and were preparing to refuel it.

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It was skipper Scott Novak's first visit to Pilots Point and he was impressed.

"We keep our boat, Simple Pleasures, at Haverstraw Marina in New York, but we decided to stop here for the night after our friends told us what a nice place this is." Novak says. "So far, the marina has made a great impression. The staff is very well organized and it's in a really pretty area."

His praise is attributable, in large part, to Russell's efforts.

"The fuel dock is the first stop for people new to the marina and we want to make a good impression," she says.

She has been working at Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn., since she was 15.

"I'm from Westbrook, grew up here and both of my older brothers worked at the marina," she says. "Then one day, my brother Ben called and said they needed a pool attendant, so that's how it started."

Russell grew up around boats. Her father has owned a Pearson 30 since before Russell was born and she often takes the family's 16-foot Boston Whaler out. Russell spent her summers on the water and continued to work at the marina.

Eleven years later, she is the dockmaster. In fact, Russell became the dockmaster three years ago at the age of 23.

"My first summer as dockmaster I had a lot of good friends working for me and it was one of the coolest things ever. They always backed me up and were my 'go-to people.' They were very supportive and it was, and continues to be, a great experience," Russell says.

Many members of that group have moved on to career jobs, but it was with their help that Russell learned how to be a dockmaster.

The 50-acre marina is west of the entrance to the Connecticut River where Long Island Sound meets Connecticut's shoreline.

"Katy was working on the docks when I came here and she has been a constant feature for as long as I can remember," says Ed Gallagher, owner of Allie's Sea Sled, a 2002 Carver 506, who has maintained a slip in the marina since 1996. "She's nice and incredibly polite - the kind of person everyone just loves to be around."

Rives Potts, the marina's general manager, says it is unusual to have a dockmaster as young as Russell, but she is the right person for the job.

"Katy came to work here as a teenager. She has worked down on the docks for 11 years and knows the job better than anyone. She knows people and her integrity is beyond reproach. She deserved the chance at a management job and has done extremely well," Potts says.

Positive first impressions are a priority at the fuel dock at Brewer Pilots Point Marina.

"Katy brings a very personable, family atmosphere to the marina," Gallagher says. "A lot more marinas are empty, but this one always has boats. I think it's because they recognized early that people might hang around the marina more and have made Pilots Point more of a resort, making the weekends into events with bands and Friday night movies and even pirate races."

Pilots Point has been aggressive about scheduling activities and that has helped people feel more connected to the marina, Gallagher says.

Potts credits Russell with increasing the number of events and activities that now take place at the marina.

"Katy and I talk a lot about making Pilots Point more than a boatyard and a marina," Potts says. "We want it to be a way of life for people, a place for families to enjoy themselves. And we get a lot of different types of customers - weekend boaters, people who use their boats as second homes and boaters who come down to socialize. Katy is very creative about meeting all of their needs and spends much of the winter planning and designing events for the coming year."

Russell graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, but she fell in love with the marina environment. During the summer months, she and her crew are based at the dock office.

"You can't beat the view," Russell says, gesturing at the wildlife refuge that adjoins the marina. "It's a great environment. There's sun, water and boats, and it's hard to get stressed with an office on the water. What more do you need?"

She initially thought she would be at the marina for just a year. But she has been dockmaster since the summer of 2007 and "I don't see myself going anywhere. I love it. You never know who you are going to meet and I love to hear the travelers' stories of places they've been and their experiences at sea."

Russell has done practically every job on the dock and she helps her staff. When two boats docked at the same time, Russell helped them to tie up and made sure that the fueling process went smoothly.

"I started off down here doing the pumpouts and things go more smoothly if the staff sees me doing the work, too," Russell says.

As dockmaster she oversees a staff of 17, handles reservations for transient boats that stay a night or two and supervises the fuel dock, the pool staff and the concession trailer. She also is responsible for the marina's newsletter.

Russell took over the dockmaster duties three years ago.

"Every year a little more responsibility is given to me and everyone has been great when it comes to teaching me the ropes. There's also a lot of customer interaction and I love it," Russell says.

Russell also is responsible for the concession stand, which has become very successful. "For years, we have tried to have a snack bar in the yard," Potts says. "We had outside people come in and try for years, but none of them were very successful. I asked Katy to take it on, bought a vending trailer and we set it up with her staff and it has run very successfully."

Russell has taken on several community service projects, including "Stuff a Boat," an event that collects non-perishable food items for the needy.

"Summer can be the hardest time for people in need and we wanted to do our part to help," she says.

To get more people involved, Russell enlisted the help of co-worker and musician Keith Toohey, who helped her find bands to play at the marina's summer events. Russell says the music brought more people to the marina and "we had a really good turnout, filling the dinghy with items that were then donated to the Westbrook Food Pantry," she says.

In July, Russell organized a clothing drive, filling the marina's 15-passenger van with clothes for the needy in Bridgeport.

In August, she helped to organize a charity concert for the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, securing donations from local business owners for raffle prizes and getting local bands to play. On Aug. 28, the marina co-hosted The Leukemia Cup Regatta, providing the facilities and the entertainment.

"It's nice because everyone is here to have a good time and raise money for a great cause," Russell says.

In November, the boatyard staff hauls out most of the boats for the winter. The fuel dock closes a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. But Russell says the work never truly slows.

"I move up to the main office for the winter, where I take reservations and plan events and help out where needed," she says. "It's really great because I've learned so many different parts of the whole business and everything I could ask for is right here."

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.