Annapolis harbormaster puts his marine experience to good use


LABOR DAY BRINGS changes: the barking of Canada geese, the encroachment of crickets, the crunch of local apples, cool, crisp air. For Annapolis harbormaster Ric Dahlgren, though, the day signals a change in the flow of what he calls "snowbirds" - folks in heat-seeking vessels who turn around and start heading south.

He and a full-time staff of two, augmented by 10 seasonal helpers, chaperone something like 15,000 boats a year in and out of the Annapolis harbor. They oversee about 60 moorings, 19 slips and 300 feet of bulkhead space. "We have a really great team, people of all ages, all races," he said.

His office collects about $330,000 in slip and mooring fees and gets a similar amount from the Annapolis Boat Shows. Any excess goes into the city's general fund.

Dahlgren runs his busy shop from snug offices overlooking Spa Creek and Ego Alley. The air buzzes with radio and phone chatter.

"Things go in pulses," Dahlgren said of traffic patterns. "In the spring you have the snowbirds going north. The cruising sailors show up until mid-June, then you have mostly locals and heavy weekend traffic, people tying up and bringing guests to a restaurant.

"Right now we're beginning to phase over into snowbirds heading south. A lot of them will linger until the hurricane season passes. Some will stay for the boat shows in October."

Two-thirds of sailboats tie up at moorings, he said. Two-thirds of powerboats seek bulkhead space in Ego Alley.

Asked about changes in the kinds of boats tying up at his docks, Dahlgren said, "The character of boating seems to reflect the economic times. Everything is trending to larger boats."

Civil War buffs might recognize the name. Dahlgren's great-great-grandfather John Adolphus Dahlgren developed a deck gun that figured prominently on Union ships. Admiral Dahlgren also commanded a blockading fleet outside Charleston, S.C. Dahlgren Hall at the Naval Academy is named for him.

Ric Dahlgren grew up in a Navy family and moved to Annapolis in 1981, married at the time to a language professor at the Naval Academy. He became harbormaster in 1988, bringing considerable experience accumulated on the East and West coasts.

He grew up sailing with his father, went to law school for a year, was an air traffic controller in the Marines, dived for abalone and sea urchins, sold marine hardware and was a harbor policeman. That was on the West Coast.

"Commercial fishing took me beyond safe," he said. "I had to learn how to get down to the finest level of safe, the edge of what was safe and what wasn't. The experience made me a much better mariner."

On the East Coast he dived for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and ran Annapolis-area tour boats. He recalled a horrific squall that temporarily blinded him and had panicked passengers screaming in the wheelhouse.

"When you're working for a living on a boat, you really have to know how to judge things like the weather," he said. "You start to feel a strong regard for your passengers because of something like that."

Of the drunks and partying that gave Ego Alley its name, Dahlgren said, "I got hired here with a mandate to clean all that up, the rafting-up [boaters tying up side by side] and all the noise and drunkenness they produced. CBS did remotes portraying Annapolis as a haven for drunk boaters.

"We cracked down on that sort of behavior. Now we're customer-service-oriented, and I like to think we're valued for our congeniality.

"Besides, I think people are getting nicer. Boating people are getting better, actually."

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