A prince of a man and the captain of Boston Harbor

Larry Cannon poses with an image of the gate at his Boston Waterboat Marina on Long Wharf where the author also has his shop. The iconic lobster buoys are a popular backdrop for visiting tourists. Photo courtesy Christopher Birch

“Sécurité, Sécurité, Sécurité. Hello all stations. This is the Boston Harbor Sailing Club Race Committee. We will be holding sailboat races in Boston Inner Harbor from now ’til sunset. Race committee standing by on one-three and one-six for any concerned traffic.” This was the VHF radio announcement I made on Wednesday summer evenings during the ’80s. It was a race committee of one–and I was it.

One such evening, I got a call back from an inbound oil tanker. The captain explained that he was full, needed the deep center of the channel, and instructed me to corral my herd of sailboats to one side or the other. With the nonchalance of heedless youth, I surveyed the racecourse and told the man on the other end of the radio that the fleet was widely spread out and that I thought he should just “pick a hole and make his way through.”

His was a big ship, like the size of the Ever Given. The captain put down his VHF mic and moved over to his horn. The five-short danger blast sequence looped continually. At the same time a plume of black smoke went up the stack and a swirl of white water formed at the ship’s stern as she revved up in reverse making an attempt to slow down. Panicked Soling skippers hardened up in a hurry with spinnakers backing. My younger self sat uneasy in the RC boat with pad of paper on my knee ready to score finishes and do little else.

In the end, no sailors were run down, and New Englanders got their fuel, but to say it had been a tranquil Wednesday evening on Boston Harbor would be an understatement.

The next day my boss pulled me aside and explained how he had taken a phone call from the Boston Harbor pilot who had been at the helm of the ship the previous night. During the call, my professional conduct was scrutinized and questioned at length. My boss knew the man personally. He sternly sent me over to apologize to him in person.

As it turned out, in addition to his work as a harbor pilot, this man also ran his family business, Boston Waterboat Marina on Long Wharf, only a stone’s throw from where I tied up the race committee boat.

I found the man easily enough and explained who I was. He looked me over without saying a word and slowly nodded his head while I stood there fidgeting. His demeanor conveyed that he knew what it was like to be young, he understood what it was like to be young, he once was young and he was glad that Mark, my boss, had sent me over. “Well,” he finally said, “did you know that ship last night was carrying 84 million gallons of diesel fuel?”

“Probably more like 83 million by the time you reached the dock after all that reversing you had to do,” I replied sheepishly. “Sorry about that.”

And that was how I met Captain Larry Cannon.

We agreed that better cooperation had to be a goal if we were both going to continue working on Boston Harbor. And by both, that meant me.

Happily, that goal was achieved. Larry graciously welcomed me and my new floating shop into his marina shortly after our awkward introduction. He knew I had a lot to learn, and I think he felt obligated to help. Thirty-five years later, my shop is still there. Sadly, Larry is not. He died this past April.

The sailboat race mishap was just a foreshadowing of many lessons to come. Larry loaned me hundreds of tools and taught me how to use them. He introduced me to droves of customers and taught me about customer service. When a storm comes in the winter, Larry taught me that you stay with your boat instead of going home to your warm bed.

With a lifetime of experience afloat, Larry knew about buoyancy. Sometimes it’s working for you, he explained while showing me how to smash a piling with a sledgehammer to free a stuck float. Other times it’s working against you, we agreed as we worked together to raise my shop after it sank.

It was Larry who found me at work in the harbor to let me know that my daughter was being born. (This was before cell phones.) And it was Larry who drove me to the hospital to meet her. Later, when 9/11 happened, it was Larry who told me about it. And it was Larry who suggested that I should stop working that day and go home to my family.

The man was known to everyone in the harbor and was respected by all. He was our leader. Larry Cannon, a prince of a man and the captain of Boston Harbor, is sorely missed.

Larry Cannon 1939 – 2021

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.