THE harbormasters OF HILTON HEAD


For anyone unclear about what a harbormaster does, Nancy Cappelmann – who has held the position at Harbour Town Yacht Basin since 1995 – can sum it up fairly succinctly.

NANCY-CAPPELMANN“Much like managing a hotel, where the purpose is to put ‘heads in beds,’ a harbormaster’s responsibility is to put ‘yachts in slips,’” says Cappelmann, who started working at the marina back in 1981 when she scored what she thought would be a tan- inducing summer job as a dockhand. “Of course, the challenge is to inspire yachters to want to dock in your marina.”

So what goes into putting ‘yachts in slips’? And what kind of person is interested in such a gig? We spoke to seven of the island’s harbormasters for an inside look at the varied personalities and experiences of one of the island’s most important jobs.

Age: late 50’s
Lived in Lowcountry: Since 1980
Years as harbormaster: 19

How did you become a harbormaster?
My first trip to Harbour Town Yacht Basin was on my parents’ boat in the summer of 1974. In 1981, I was looking for a summer job and was hired as a dockhand, expecting to work here for a season. Alas, 33 years later, I am lucky enough to continue to have the best job on the island.

What question do you get most often from Harbour Town visitors?
There are a few: “Who owns that boat?” “How many bedrooms does it have?” “What does that one cost?” While we understand the curiosity that yachts invoke, it is our obligation to respect the owner’s privacy. Therefore all of these questions are off the table. We do field questions about the length of a yacht, or the draft, or the origin of a particular flag. So general questions are fine. But personal questions? No.

What do you do, or where do you go, for a vacation?
My family and I are lucky enough to have a small cabin on the beach on a remote island in the Bahamas. With no electricity, we truly get away from it all: We fish, snorkel, wash our clothes in a bucket, drink rum and watch the sun go down.

natejonesNATE JONES
Age: 30
Years in the Lowcountry: 22
Years as a harbormaster: 6

What is the biggest misconception about harbormasters?
That we hang around all day and don’t work hard. I mean I wanted to be a harbormaster so I could wear shorts and T-shirts at work, and I couldn’t imagine being in an office all day. I’m usually in my office about two hours a day. But there’s a lot that goes into it. I’m always fixing things and managing employees. Right now I’m covered in grease; I’ve been working on a forklift for the past two hours.

Do you have a favorite hobby on the water?
I love to fish, offshore fishing. I fish for everything off my boat – but her name is not appropriate for this magazine.

Your job is on a resort island hanging around boats. What do you do, or where do you go, for a vacation?
I go to other islands and hang around boats. I love the Virgin Islands. My wife and I go once a year.

What sets your marina apart from the rest?
Our family of employees, and our level of customer service that we give the boaters here.

donlawrenceDON LAWRENCE
Age: 78
Years in the Lowcountry: 27
Years as a harbormaster: 7

What question do you get most often at work?
Because of our lock system, the No. 1 question I get is, “How do you get water into the harbor?” I always tell people, ‘No, it’s not the rain and no, we don’t use a water hose.’ We have a high tides system, which allows us to let in a measurable amount of water when needed.

What is one of the most exciting or funniest stories from your days on the job?
About five years ago, we had a new member try to get his boat through the lock. Come to find out his boat didn’t fit! Unfortunately his Realtor had given him the wrong measurements for our lock system. As a result, the Realtor had to put in new fenders (which weren’t as wide as our old ones), allowing for larger boats to come through the lock system.

What is the biggest misconception about harbormasters?
The biggest misconception about harbormasters is that we have nothing to do. As harbormaster, it’s my responsibility to allow access to boats coming in and leaving the lock system, monitor every boat going through (when boats leave, who was on the boat, when it returns) and in the harbor, monitor the docks, check boaters’ registration and insurance, and provide pump-out services. Plus I’m responsible for helping facilitate three major annual harbor events – Blessing of the Fleet, Boat Commissioning and the Holiday Boat Parade, as well as other popular harbor events, including our monthly Commodore Dock Parties, Annual Cobia Fishing Tournament and our Annual Sandbar Party.

Age: 31
Years in the Lowcountry: 10
Years as a harbormaster: 2

Why did you want to be a harbormaster?
I’ve always been in love with boats and being near the water. I first started out as a Dockmaster at Windmill Harbour, and after working in that position for a year, I developed a rapport with the boat owners, the care of their boats, and the marina itself. When the opportunity arose to be the harbormaster, I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up.

Do you have a favorite hobby on the water? I really love boating in general. Every time I go out on the water, I feel like I’m boat shopping; every boat I see is my favorite boat. I love looking at marinas, at docks, shipping traffic, commercial operations, etc. I enjoy navigating to destinations, and, believe it or not, even the challenge of running aground because it provides an opportunity to learn the waterways better.

If you couldn’t work near the water, what would you do for a living?
I’d do anything I could to pay the bills until I could find a job near the water!

What sets your marina apart from the rest?
Windmill Harbour Marina has one of the few lock systems available in the area. Our locked harbor means that boats are well protected from tides, storms, and allow boats to have a cleaner bottom. We are also home to the wonderful South Carolina Yacht Club, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Years in Lowcountry: 1.5/18
Years as harbormaster: Both took over in August 2013

If you couldn’t work near the water, what would you do for a living?
Sean: I can’t imagine not working near or on the water, but if I had to do anything else I would like to be an industrial chemist or a meteorologist. I’ve always been interested in chemistry and those are two of my favorites in that field.

What sets your marina apart from the rest?
Chris: Palmetto Bay Marina isn’t your typical marina on Hilton Head Island. Not only are we the oldest marina on the island, but we are truly the last full-service, working marina on the island. The real thing that makes us different from the rest is we are truly a community on the water. More than half the boats docked here are year-round liveaboards, and many have been here for at least five years, some almost 20 years.

Where do you choose to vacation?
Sean: I’m most likely to be seen in Belize or Costa Rica, surfing the breaks and enjoying the clear water. Chris: I’m most likely to head to a mountain range. Small mountain towns are my favorite.

What’s the biggest misconception about harbormasters?
Both: People think we just direct boat traffic and provide docking for boats. Every day is a complete challenge with something new to learn in a marina. We interact with our liveaboards and new customers on a daily basis; they give us our best leads on what needs to be improved or fixed. We are here to enforce South Carolina boating rules and regulations. We are the standard of customer service and pride ourselves on what we can offer with our knowledge and know-how. This is a 24-hour job; you never know what you may be called to do in the middle of the night. But we choose this life and we love to live it.

Age: 34
Years in Lowcountry: since February (but grew up here)
Years as harbormaster: hired in February (was harbormaster in Florida before this)

Why did you want to be a harbormaster?
I worked as a captain for a long time. I wound up working heavily in the private yacht industry, and did a lot of traveling through the Caribbean. After doing that for about 4 years, I needed to be landbased. I came back to Miami, met my wife there and stayed in that area. Being a harbormaster allows me to stay in the industry without the travel demands of working as a private captain or a corporate captain.

Do you have a favorite hobby on the water?
I love all water activities, I’ve been in the water since I was a kid. I love diving, and I’m a dive instructor.

What question do you get most often at work?
“Is there a bathroom in here?” We get a lot of charter booking and activity-based questions, so we do a lot of explaining about what the charter captains are catching and things like that.