Meet Rockland’s new harbormaster

Hank Garfield
“This is one of the busiest and most eclectic harbors in Maine,” the man himself declares. On a rare warm day in early May, Matt Ripley, the new Rockland harbormaster, stands outside his office looking out at a placid and mostly empty piece of water. The ferries and a few fishing boats go in and out, but there’s nary a mast in sight. Only a handful of the harbor’s moorings are occupied. “It may not be busy now,” he says, squinting into the midmorning sun, “but summer’s just around the corner. There’s a lot to do.”

Some, but not all, of the floats are out; most, but not all, of the 600 mooring owners (including, in the interest of full disclosure, me) have paid their annual fee by the March 15 deadline and avoided the $30 late charge. Equipment is still to be located, schedules are still being updated, moorings inspected and serviced. The phone in Ripley’s small office rings every few minutes.

Over the ensuing weeks, the harbor will fill with boats coming and going from all parts of the coast. “When you think about it, Rockland is equidistant from just about every port in Maine,” Ripley says. “You can go up the bay, or out to islands, or take off Downeast. We’re right in the middle of things.”

It’s hard to believe that Ripley, a young-looking 40, already has a 21-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard behind him. It must run in his veins: He followed his father and two older brothers into this service. His father was on active duty for 24 years, and, consequently, the family moved around a lot when the three boys were young.

Ripley was born in Homer, Alaska, where his father was stationed at the time, but by the time he was five, he’d landed in the Rockland area, and spent much of his youth there. His father retired, and the family remained in the area. Matthew attended Georges Valley High School in Thomaston, where he played basketball and pitched for the baseball team. The school no longer exists; Georges Valley and Rockland high schools consolidated to form Oceanside High School in 2011. Nonetheless, Ripley has fond memories of his youth, especially his time on the water.

“In the summers, I lobstered out of Spruce Head and Wheeler Bay,” he recalls. “I was a sternman here and there, whenever people needed a hand, and I had my own boat for a little while. I also worked on the Laura B, the passenger boat from Port Clyde to Monhegan Island.”

Ripley didn’t waste any time following in the footsteps of his forebears. “After graduation, I had about a week and half, and then I headed off to boot camp.” His first Coast Guard assignment was to Alaska on the cutter Sedge – the same ship his father had served on the year he was born.

He’s reticent with stories of his time in the Coast Guard, though he has served in some interesting places around the world. Trained as naval engineer, he spent as much time belowdecks as above them. “If you can turn a wrench on it, I’ve probably worked on it,” he says.

Ripley’s Coast Guard career took him from Alaska to Puerto Rico to Rockland (where he spent five years and met the woman he would later marry), to the Persian Gulf, back to Rockland, then to Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine, Fla.

The Coast Guard does many things, from drug interdiction to security for overseas oil platforms owned by American companies. Ripley has at some point been involved in most of it. “When I was on patrol boats in the Caribbean, we did a lot of drug busts,” he says. “At one point, we had eleven tons of cocaine on board. We went in to Key West, dropped it off, and went back out on patrol.”

One night near Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, his boat struck an undersea object, later identified as a buoy used by supertankers. “It cut a big gash in our hull,” Ripley recounts. “We almost sank that night. It was a rough night. It was dark and windy, and we were all soaked. I ended up getting pneumonia. It was brutal.”

Overseeing Rockland Harbor won’t be quite as dangerous, but Ripley anticipates it will be just as busy. He took over in March, following the controversial firing of the previous harbormaster, Ed Glaser, who had filled the position for the past 12 years. According to the “Bangor Daily News,” Glaser and City Manager James Chaousis had clashed over recent hikes in mooring fees, among other issues, with Glaser opposing the increases. Glaser was fired days before his Feb. 1 retirement.

Though both Ripley and Glaser have nothing but good words for one another, there was no formal changeover. “By all accounts, he did a great job out here,” Ripley says. “But there was tension between him and the city, so, understandably, we didn’t have a good exchange of information. Even putting the piers together was a challenge. It took a while, but with the help of some of the locals around the harbor, we figured things out. It went better than expected.”

He’d have a new assistant harbormaster and four dock stewards to help out with maintenance and boat-traffic management once the season got rolling. He planned to be busy. The city maintains 17 moorings for visiting boaters. Rockland plays host to numerous waterfront events, including the five-day Maine Lobster Festival; the Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors Show; and the North Atlantic Blues Festival. There are schooner races and lobsterboat races. Four cruise-ship visits were scheduled for the later half of the season, as well as a visit from a Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment.

Back in May, when we had been chatting,  it was clear that Ripley was anxious to get started.

“I’m looking forward to meeting everybody, all the different entities that share Rockland Harbor.”

Hank Garfield learned to sail on his father’s 36-foot schooner, Lively Lady, and a succession of smaller boats in the waters around Deer Isle. He now lives in Bangor and sails his Cape Dory 25 Planet Waves out of Rockland. He is the author of five novels, including “The Lost Voyage of John Cabot,” and writes a weekly blog, “Slower Traffic” (, about living in Maine without owning a car.