HARWICH - When Harbormaster Thomas Leach was hired in the spring of 1973 he was still technically a senior at Tufts University. At the time Leach was also a commercial shellfisherman pursuing a quahog bounty in Pleasant Bay. This week, after 39 years as the town's harbormaster, natural resources officer and herring warden, Leach has announced his retirement. Officially he will remain employed with the town through his 61st birthday, Aug.10, but with vacation and leave time accrued, he will walk out the door into a new life on June 21. It is only fitting that Leach leave on the first day of summer, for unlike most people heading off into the sunset, he is young at heart and anxious to begin new quests. He spoke of a second career, maybe using his Coast Guard approved captain's license, coaching sailing or expanding his interests in astronomy. Last summer he started working one night a week as house astronomer at the Wequassett Inn Resort and Golf Club. "I have a lot of irons in the fire," Leach said of myriad activities in which he has long participated. "I'm young Leach enough to move into another job."
Leach started the job on May 23, 1973 and at the time college graduation was in June, so technically he was still a student. He had put himself through college as a long raker in Pleasant Bay in the boom years. His father sent him a clipping from a newspaper referencing the town of Harwich looking to hire a natural resources officer. Leach applied. At the time, Sherrill Smith was harbormaster, Roger Munsey was shellfish warden and Arthur Hall, Jr. was herring warden. The selectmen at the time, Donn B. Griffin, Barry A Hemeon and Hayden Greenhalgh, were contemplating combining the three positions. "I was 21 years old and they thought, if it doesn't work out we can always fire him," Leach said of their decision. "But they loved me."
Today times are different, and there is a lot more to each of the positions Leach now holds.Town Administrator James Merriam recognizes that and is contemplating changes, ironically moving away from the consolidated position and separating the tasks. "Tom's an institution in Harwich, he's got four decades of irreplaceable history of the waterways. I'd imagine we'll have to look immediately," Merriam said of hiring a new harbormaster as the boating season approaches. "First the job description needs updating. He's accumulated a number of positions and he's got a keen interest in them, but we'll have to examine that. We've got some challenges ahead in how to put personnel and duties together." Merriam cited changes which have already occurred, pointing out Heinz Proft was once the assistant harbormaster and assistant natural resources officer, but he has become environmental science and water quality director. Decisions will have to be made on how to distribute duties. "We're right into the heat of the season down there. We can't miss a beat," the town administrator said. "I do appreciate Tom giving us the lead time on it."
Over his four decades along the waterfront, Leach has seen some changes. When he started the job offshore lobstering was the key fishery and the boats got bigger and bigger as the fishery drew fishermen to the edge of the Continental Shelf. The harbormaster said in those days he would jump on a boat as a stern man once in a while to help with "making a living." He said in those days, Bobby Brown, owner of the Andrea Gail and Hannah Bowden of "Perfect Storm" fame, was fishing out of Saquatucket Harbor with smaller vessels. After lobstering came the 200 mile limit and cod fishing was king. Harwich was looking at adding a commercial fish boat basin in those days.That faded with depleted stocks and new vessels arrived in the hunt for Icelandic sea scallops. "That's when I realized fishing never ends, it just re-invents itself," Leach said of changing fleets which have occupied Saquatucket Harbor over the years. He cited changes to longlining, gillnetting and now quahog dragging in Nantucket Sound. "When I started here there were a lot of wooden boats in the harbor. When people came to launch those boats, we'd have three pumps ready to go - wood had to swell to close the seams," the longtime harbormaster said. "I still have one of those pumps, but with fiberglass, I don't use it any more."
There was the rise and fall of the sailboat in the harbor. In 2000, 70 of the 200 slips at the marina were sailboats. It was a time of regattas and racing on the wind, but despite the drastic increase in fuel costs, motor boats have gained in popularity. Today there are only 14 sailboats in Saquatucket Harbor. There are too many stories to tell of his experiences as harbormaster over the years. But he related one of two young West Harwich boys who took a small sailboat to Monomoy Island, a storm kicked up and they did not return home. The parents feared the worst. Leach left at first light the next morning in the small boat provided to the harbormaster at the time and in rough seas and high winds, discovered the boat along the Monomoy shoreline. The boys made the wise decision to stay on the island for the night. Selectman Donn "Buckey" Griffin often joked he had a special dispensation from Chatham to harvest Monomoy clams. He would hop in his wooden Lyman, The State of Cape Cod, go to Monomoy to exercise that dispensation, returning home with a pile of clams. One night Griffin did not return, so Leach went in search and hours later caught the glow from a small flare. The harbormaster retrieved a cold Harwich selectman from the desolate Chatham beach.
The incident that haunts Leach the most occurred over Columbus Day weekend in 2003, when college students Mary Jagoda and Sarah Aronoff set out in kayaks from a Harwich Port beach only to be covered in a blanket of fog. The search continued night and day, turning up the body of only one of the students. Leach sought state legislation mandating added safety equipment for kayakers. "It's a tough one to remember, but I think about that all the time and how they could have saved themselves," Leach said. Heading into retirement, Leach said he plans to do a lot of traveling with his wife, Jackie, a retired guidance counselor from the Harwich school system. He also said he has taken up golf this year, joining Cranberry Valley Golf Course last Saturday. He has been an avid watercolor painter and plans to increase that activity, and he has been conducting research with an eye on writing about Harwich Port maritime events. He also has purchased a catboat and will be sailing out of Round Cove. Leach said he wants to stay active in competitive sailboat racing. He also said he misses working with the high school sailing team and one days wants to get back into coaching.
The retiring harbormaster said he has been fortunate to work as long as he has for the town. "I loved the job, it was a great experience and education. I had to learn to temper my thinking. But I was always honest to myself and gave my opinion the way I saw something." Leach said he was always proud of Saquatucket Harbor and the way it was run. He said it was a family oriented facility and the boaters and fishermen were always respectful and never got out of hand. He said there were very few times when an incident required police intervention. Speaking with his natural resources hat, Leach praised the conditions of the herring runs in town and added he is especially proud of the shellfish laboratory and upwelling system created in 1994 to increase shellfish stock in the embayments. Typical of Leach , he wanted foremost to thank the many people who helped him to succeed, naming many including formers and present harbormasters. He also singled out former assistant shellfish constable Donald Ryder for his help over the years. Harwich Harbormaster Tom Leach this week announced his retirement after 39 years of service to the town. Leach is looking to spend more time on the water, but sailing the catboat he bought this winter and not at the helm of the harbormaster's vessel Commander.