Tom Leach Harbormaster and Astronomer


Tom Leach is a man whose passions encompass the universe: the ocean and the heavens. When he talks about them, his face lights up, he becomes animated, and his hands start moving as he jumps from one cool fact,or one great story, to the next. Whether it is water related activities or astronomy, Tom is an enthusiastic man and a great raconteur,especially of sea tales.Tom has been Harwich’s harbor master for 35 years. Hired in 1973, upon graduation from Tufts University with a degree in Chemistry, he has stayed put because it’s what he loves. Tom says he has been oriented toward the water for his entire life. As a teenager, he sailed on Pleasant Bay while vacationing with his parents from his native New Jersey. His parents moved to the Cape in 1971, when Tom was a sophomore in college, and he willingly followed.

As harbor master, Tom’s worn many hats.At various times his job has included stints as the shellfish constable, wharfinger, herring supervisor, conservation assistant, ater qualitymonitor, exofficio member of Harwich’s Waterways Commission, and natural resource director. Tom is also past president of the Cape Cod Harbormasters’ Association, anorganization that covers all communities from Buzzards Bay to Provincetown. He has three full-time staffers working with him. Heinz Proft has been Tom’s assistant for10 years; Tom Telesmanick is the dockmaster,who builds and repairs wherever needed; and Michelle Morris is the office’s clerk. Filling out the complement of staff is a large group of volunteers who help Tom carry out his duties. Three such volunteers, Ron Saulnier, Dean Knight, and Jim Coyle, are shellfi sh offi cerswho routinely “walk the flats” to prevent illegal shellfishing. Others help with Harwich’s herring run, which is closed through 2008 but was open on spring weekends to allow the public to view the herring that came to spawn. Still other volunteers monitor the water quality of Harwich’s three harbors, Herring River, and 13 of Harwich’s freshwater ponds.With all of these tasks to oversee, Tom’s job is a 24/7 proposition. He’s also responsible for monitoring boating and other water activities in Harwich’s three harbors, Saquatucket,Wychmere, and Allen, in addition to the Herring River, Red River, Round Cove, Pleasant Bay, and 27 lakes and ponds. In spite of all of these responsibilities, Tom still has time for astory or two. He’s a natural storyteller, sharing yarns springing from his many years on the water.

When he’s on the water, Tom’s approach is a sound one for all boaters. “I try very hardnot to put myself in a dangerous situation,” hesays. “I’m a fanatic about wearing a life jacket, for example, both in my work and in my sailboat. My harbormaster boat, the Commander,may be the safest [harbormaster craft] on the Cape. It’s a 1990 Duffy & Duffy 35-foot fiberglass fishing vessel. We use it for harbor patrol, marine rescue, and mooring and channel marker maintenance, among other things. Also, we have a lot of other equipment that helps me keep people safe, including an underwater camera and an underwater scooter for search and rescue.” Much of the equipment he uses has been donated to the harbor master’s office, either by the government or by privateindividuals, he says. He also has two 22-footpump-out craft for pumping sewage fromboats. These are necessities, he says becausehis harbors are part of a Federal no-discharge area. Another craft, a small boat and trailer,was a recent private donation and will be used in Harwich’s lakes and ponds.

Perhaps because of his insistence on water safety, when he talks about the loss of two kayakers in Harwich waters, Tom is still, after five years, visibly upset. The women were kayaking in the fog and were never seen again. Tom and his wife Jackie were visiting their son at school in Connecticut when Tom got the call about the missing women.He rushed back to Harwich to aid in the search, to no avail. “The office was notified late in the day and set up anetwork of search boats. The kayaks were found lashed together upsidedown, but that’s all we discovered,”he says. “We’ve never lost anyone like that before or since,” he adds.Of all the weather problems he’s encountered, Tom says hurricanes especially call for sound preparations to avoid disaster. He requires boat owners to haul their boats from the water well in advance of these storms.“It’s only prudent to remove the boats from the water,” he says. “We also make sure the lines are doubled andthat everything is made fast,” he adds.

Tom’s job also involves enforcing maritime laws. He has taken steps to ensure that part of this work is easier than it once was. “Several years ago, we revamped our Harbor Man-agement Plan. We tried to spell out everything plainly, regarding boat slips and moorings for example, to eliminate any areas that would be open to interpretation. A strong harbor management plan helps me because it defines my job and leaves nothing in question regarding the provisions of the laws.”

Tom’s harbor master duties are not limited to the pleasure craft that ply Harwich’s waters. The town has apermanent fishing fleet of 41 boats. In the fall, a fleet of transient boats fishes for tuna. This tuna fleet, once as largeas 85 vessels, has been decreasing inrecent years. Tuna fishermen must have a permit to fish, and buyers must have a permit to purchase the tuna, requirements that Tom’s office closely monitors.

He takes a sanguine approach toward the politics that he may encounter when doing his job. “You try to do your job the best you can. Everybody’s a potential critic, but for every detractor, there are supporters. Politics are important, and you can’t ignore them. To get the best outcome, I need to try to educate everyone on my reasons for arriving at a decision I have made.” He treads lightly, however; “Under the law, a harbor master has clout, but we cannot abuse that power,” he says.

None of Tom’s days is typical; they are dictated by the seasons. In winter months, for example, he oversees maintenance on the herring runs and docks he’s responsible for, in addition to handling the paperwork that’s required for upcoming summer activities. Tom and Heinz, both experienced divers, are sometimes called upon to repair Saquatucket Harbor’s deicing system, a project that involves diving into frigid waters. In summer, his days involve many more tasks. He oversees landscaping and restroom cleanup, dockage matters, positioning of channelmarkers and swimming buoys; makes sure the jetty lights are operating; checks the lighting on the buoy at Allen Harbor; and patrols to ensure no laws and regulations are broken.This patrol includes ensuring that no boats are entering areas marked for swimming, areas that are clearly defined and appear on the harbormaster’s Website, Tom’s busy season peaks around July Fourth and lasts until the end of tuna season, generally in mid-October. With help from the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Tom also teaches safe boating practices at the Harwich Junior Boating Safety Academy, a five-session course that he started in 1998. Each youngster who passes the 100-question final exam becomes certifi ed to operate a motorboat.

Tom’s job, although hectic, has one less issue for him to deal with, thanks to a decision made several years ago.He is not having to cope with rising gas prices for boats fueling in Saquatucket Harbor. “The year before last, we decided to close the fuel dock permanently. The commercial fishermen who moor in Harwich fuel from a tank truck, so it’s not a problem for them. Other boats can fuel at the Harwich Port Boat Yard, which is next door in Wychmere Harbor,” he says. He predicts a change in boating because of the rising fuel prices. “This used to be primarily a sailboat marina with a forest of masts; now therearen’t many masts out there. But with the escalating prices for fuel, sailboats will be coming back,” he says.

Tom is animated when he discusses his job, and he becomes even more so when he talks about one of his avocations. He has been a member ofthe Cape Cod Astronomical Society for two years. He became interested in the skies at an early age. Sailing the waters of the Cape since he was very young, he became envious ofthe mariners who could use celestial navigation. He signed up for a coursein astronomy at Chatham’s Eldredge Public Library. After that course, he was hooked. “The sky opened up for me,” he says. He bought a 10-inch telescope and built an observatory in his barn. “On Cape Cod, you need a facility you can get to immediately when conditions are right,” he emphasizes.“It’s often impractical to lug an unwieldy telescope because the ability to see things in the night sky is so fleeting that you must be able to quickly get to and use your equipment,”he explains. His telescope is hooked up to his computer. With this arrangement, Tom can type in what he wants to look at in the sky, and thescope’s lens will move to that area. Hehas a Web cam, as well, which photographs the images on his screen.

The next step for Tom was to find people with a similar enthusiasm for what they saw in the night sky. Searching the Internet, he found the Cape Cod Astronomical Society and learned they have an observatory at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School that has a 16-inch telescope. He joined the society, and eventually developed a Web site for them in which he included many helpful links for getting in-depth information on the universe. He’s the society’s vice president, and for a year, he’s been handling publicity for the organization. Tom’s enthusiasm for all things celestial dominates his conversation. “It’s so cool to reach for a reference book and find out about what I’m looking at in the [telescope’s] eyepiece,” he says. “I can look at a light from the sky that my reference book tells me is 250,000 light years away. That object predates much of the world maybe. When I was a kid, my brother had only a small telescope. Now, we have the computer and that’s made all the difference. Right now is an exciting time to get into astronomy; we can learn so much because of the Internet,” he says. To maximize his enjoyment of celestial discovery, Tom has been able to increase his peripheral vision to a degree beyond what is normal for most humans.

Tom sees an impediment to star-gazing, however. “Some people like looking at the constellations, but in the entire Northeast, we’re losing the ability to see what’s in the night sky because of all the distracting ambient light,” Tom says. “Light pollution is getting bad on the Cape, too,” he adds. He had his own harbor master’s facility at Saquatucket Harbor tested for light pollution and found that the lighting there is within normal limits.“One challenge of the Astronomical Society is to keep Cape Cod thinking about light pollution and how to reduce it,” he says.

Tom and Jackie live in Harwich.Their son Tommy is a mechanical engineer and lives in Newport Beach, Calif. Tom’s hobbies include, of course, water sports such as surfing, windsurfing and sailing, but also tennis, painting in watercolors, and reading. The longer one talks with Tom, the more they discover about him. For example,in 1984, he designed the Cape Cod Frosty, a sailboat that, according to a Cape Cod Frosty Association Web site, is the world’s smallest racing dinghy. More than 1,000 Frostys are now inexistence.

Tom Leach is a man who is content with his life. The sea and the heavens, his vocation and his avocation, define who he is. He is lucky enough to be immersed in them every day. Not everyone is that fortunate. If you happen to see Tom, get him to tell you his shark story.


Cape Cod Astronomical Society When: 7:30 p.m. first Thursday of each month
Where: Library, Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School
210 Station Avenue, South Yarmouth
Annual dues: $30
Web site:
Mail: P.O. Box 1271, South Dennis, MA 02660
Observatory: 508-398-4765Su
summer activities: Stargazing every Wednesday at dusk at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School’s observatory

About the author Nancy Patterson lives and writes in Chatham. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Prime Time and other Cape Cod publications, as well as in chapbooks froma s far away as Cheyenne, Wyo. After spending 30 years as a Congressional investigator, liv-ing and working in Washington, D.C., she has returned to her Nickerson roots.