Working on the Water

With six major saltwater beaches, two harbors, numerous ponds and dozens of coves and inlets, Chatham is a town encompassed by water. These five people work in various capacities on and around our magnificent waterways, allowing us to utilize and enjoy them all year long.

Text By Lisa Cavanaugh | Photography by Julia Cumes

Renee Gagne

Shellfish Constable

In 1983, when Renee Gagne decided to spend “one last summer” in Chatham after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire, she never realized it would become her permanent home. She stayed and took the only work she could find that winter: shucking scallops. It was hard, unglamorous labor, but the lure of the sea took hold and she segued into full-time commercial fishing. She began long lining, going offshore for groundfish and bluefin tuna. “It is the most indescribable feeling—empowering, while at the same time knowing there are bigger powers involved,” says Gagne. She was also shellfishing intermittently, and ultimately decided to do that exclusively. She loved having her own small boat and earning good money digging for steamers, quahogs and other shellfish in the waters around Chatham. “I made enough money to put myself through grad school and buy a house,” says Gagne. “It was great.” When the previous shellfish constable neared retirement, Gagne campaigned for the position and was appointed five years ago. Her job is part enforcement of both the Commonwealth’s regulations and town rules for harvesting shellfish, and part propagation. It is a culmination of her passion for shellfishing, her education in marine policy and her love for Chatham. Gagne is excited about new educational opportunities for young people in town to learn about shellfishing firsthand, see a working upweller and understand how the fishery can be sustained. This kind of engagement with the public is the best part of the job, she says. “Being out there on the flats, especially with first timers, showing them how to harvest properly, how to take care of shellfish, even how to prepare it—that’s a good day’s work.”

Marshall Burke

Coast Guardsman

When second-class Coast Guard boatswain’s mate Marshall Burke found out he was being stationed in Chatham, his mother sent him the book, “The Finest Hours.” “I had no idea about Cape Cod. I just knew it was cold,” says Burke. The story encouraged the Delaware native to learn the history of Chatham’s famous life-saving station and he has since joined the surfman apprentice program—elite training for extremely skilled boat drivers to increase their expertise in navigating in treacherous weather. “We’re always tracking nor’easters and hurricanes, so we can get out and train,” says Burke. In addition to those exercises, his work is search and rescue and law enforcement, especially during summer months when there are more recreational boaters. “We also do fisheries regulation enforcement,” says Burke, “and report damages to navigation buoys to the Chatham harbormaster.” When summer ends, their focus shifts. “We really try to support the Chatham fishing fleet, who are crossing the bar every single day.” The station has three identical 42-foot long Near Shore Lifeboats, and they patrol each morning before dawn to report on conditions. They also have someone monitoring their Chatham bar camera 24/7. “With changes in the weather, it becomes more hazardous with greater potential for something to go wrong,” he says. Burke truly appreciates the welcoming local community and the Coast Guardsmen get involved in fundraisers, auxiliary programs, veterans ceremonies and kids activities. “Winter is cold for sure,” says Burke. “But I really like it here. I’m a surfer and have met some good friends that way.” The 32 year old has also moved in with his girlfriend, a Cape Cod native, so he hopes he can extend his time here through the surfman apprenticeship. “On summer evenings, I get underway, head south off Monomoy, turn the boat around and watch the sunset. It’s one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen.”

Sam Forbes

Marine Mechanic

“When I first started working on boats four years ago, it was a very new, cool world for me,” says Sam Forbes, a mobile diesel engine technician originally from Maine. “My office is whatever harbor I’m in.” Forbes fixes, maintains and overhauls marine engines on commercial fishing vessels and recreational yachts across the Cape, including both Stage and Chatham harbors, but he started his career working on trucks. He graduated from a technical institute in Norwood and became Cummins-Engine certified at that company’s qualification program in Arizona. After five years of doing diesel work, he realized that the marine side of things had better pay and a huge shortage of workers. So four years ago, he moved to Cape Cod and became skilled at diagnosing and solving problems on boats. “I love to figure things out,” he says, “especially for fishermen because someone’s livelihood is on the line. It’s really satisfying taking care of the problem so they can keep fishing.” The working conditions can be challenging: tight under-deck spaces, rain and wind, shifting tides and ocean swell, crowded harbors. Forbes admits that it is far more challenging physically than his on-land work, but he has grown accustomed to it and enjoys working on the water. The tourists at Chatham fish pier tend to leave him be, but the seals in the harbor regularly come over to check out what he is doing. He is getting plenty of work and he thinks it’s a beautiful place to do it in. “The Chatham sunrises are amazing,” he says, “and I love the architecture in town.”

Martha Stone

Water Watcher

“At first, the town wasn’t sure who these ladies were,” says Martha Stone, one of the original founders of the Friends of Chatham Waterways and the Water Watcher volunteer program. “We were concerned about nitrogen levels and wanted town officials to set up a harbor management plan, but they said they didn’t have the time or the money, so we did it.” It took nine years, but Stone and the other members of the newly formed committee, working with Chatham’s Water Quality Lab, helped develop the plan for a water quality-monitoring program and wastewater management from homes, businesses and storm water runoff. “We were the first town in Massachusetts to have an approved harbor management plan and the first on the Cape to pass regulation for property transfer cesspool/septic tank inspection,” says Stone, who with her husband, Jay, has been living full time in Chatham for 25 years. She was engaged in community work in their previous town of Wellesley and she was determined to continue her civic-minded activity here. “Everything the Friends has accomplished has been from the ground up,” she says. For Stone, that meant asking everyone she knew with a boat to volunteer in the new Water Watcher program. The team was trained to collect water samples and assess water quality by measuring clarity, salinity and other factors. The data collected was critical for the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP). Water Watchers continue their work today, testing Chatham’s estuaries regularly, and the samples continue to be analyzed by the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Stone is proud of her role in launching the project.  “One of Chatham’s charms is the beautiful waterways, and to be surrounded by such intelligent and creative people who are interested in preserving these is very satisfying.”

John King

Shark Captain

If you’ve ever used the Sharktivity app from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, you can thank John King for helping to bring that handy information to your smartphone. King and his wife, Pam, donate the use of their 24-foot sport-fishing boat, the Aleutian Dream, as well as their skills as captain and photographer, to marine biologist Greg Skomal and the AWSC for their ongoing research and documentation of the great white shark population off Cape Cod. King was a crab fisherman in Alaska for years before starting a successful biotech company. After a  pharmaceutical company bought him out, he and Pam took the opportunity to indulge in their passion for photography, especially of humpback whales and great white sharks. The whales were easy to find close to their home, an antique house near the Chatham fish pier, but for great whites they traveled far and wide until 2009. “We were in Brazil when we learned that white sharks had returned to Cape Cod,” says King. He sought out Skomal, who was starting a population study on the species and was introduced to Cynthia Wigren, now the executive director of AWSC. It took a few years, but they succeeded in helping build the new nonprofit organization. John joined the board and eventually saw an opportunity to be even more hands-on. “They needed time on the water to gather data and had been chartering, which was expensive. I made a decision to volunteer our time and our boat.” King has spent his life on the water and is thrilled to operate the vessel that allows the AWSC to create a photo database of the sharks that make Chatham their summer home. Pam is on board taking photos, and the entire crew works well together, helping to provide vital information about white sharks to the state and the public. “There is no better way to spend my time than helping Greg Skomal tag sharks,” says King. “I’ve been around these phenomenal creatures a lot, but it’s a thrill every time we see one.”