Steve Melo on 15 years as Dartmouth Harbormaster

Oct 14, 2019

For more than 15 years, Steve Melo has endured both stormy seas and calm waters as the town of Dartmouth’s full-time Harbormaster.

Melo ⁠— a Dartmouth native ⁠— has worked in the Harbormaster’s office in Padanaram for nearly 30 years in total, first as an assistant to the late harbormaster Arthur Dias, and then as harbormaster himself.

“The first thing we do every morning is come in and check the list of things that need to be done, and throw the list away,” he said with a smile. “Because we deal with whatever comes in the door. It changes from minute to minute.”

He spoke in a rare few moments of down time from the bright new office space in Padanaram’s Maritime Center, opened just this May.

The former attorney used to assist Harbormaster Dias in his spare time.

After years of practicing law, he realized that working on the harbor was what he loved, and dedicated more and more of his time to it, eventually taking the top job upon Dias’ retirement.

The Harbormaster’s Office works around the clock pumping out waste tanks, performing searches and rescues on the water, and keeping infrastructure ⁠— and paperwork ⁠— in order for the harbor’s many boats, launches, and moorings.

But every so often those in the office have to stop everything to help find and save lost or stranded boaters. 

“We’re always listening to fire, police, marine [emergency channels],” Melo noted, adding that just last week, the office was called by all three services to look for two lost boaters, who were subsequently found.

The job has its share of tragedy as well. 

According to Melo, one of the most difficult days was in 2008 when Dartmouth sailor D.J. Walsh died in a boating accident on Buzzards Bay. 

Melo said that a power boat ran down Walsh’s sailboat, killing him instantly. The power boat operator was later charged with homicide by vessel.

“He was a legendary sailor in this area. All-around great guy,” Melo remembered. “That was heart wrenching...It was just horrendous.”

But along with the sad stories, there is also what the harbormaster deems a “comical” side to the job.

“I’ve had people buy an expensive house on the water, and then complain that their view of the harbor has become obscured by boats in the spring launch season,” he said.

He laughed. “I didn’t know how better to answer it than to assure the lady that called that ‘It’ll take us a few months, but we’ll take care of that for you.’ And lo and behold, come October, most of those boats went away.”

In summer, Melo noted, the job consists of 12-hour days, seven days a week. And it can get even busier in the fall as boaters start taking their vessels out of the water.

So he’s spent the past 30 years without any summer holidays — or even weekends off — during the season. “It’s crazy. It really is,” he said.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s what I signed up for,” he said with a wry smile.

Melo also noted that the demands of the job have increased in recent years as the harbor welcomes more boaters and more visitors. 

Years ago, he said, you could practically see tumbleweeds blowing through the village.

“Those days are hopefully long gone,” he stated proudly. “And now we’ve got pedestrian traffic, bicycle traffic, boat traffic.”

He added, “The revitalization of the village is working.”

October 8 marked the first-ever annual Harbormaster Appreciation Day, an event started by the website to bring to light the hard work and dedication of harbormasters across the country.

For Melo, however, just getting a thank you from a resident is recognition enough.

“Appreciation goes a long way,” he said. “Just say nice things about me when I’m gone, and I’ll be happy.”