Harpswell Harbor Master Paul Plummer takes a picture of a mooring ball near The Goslings after placing a warning sticker on it. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Harpswell has more coastline than any municipality in the state, at 216 miles, and more moorings too — about 2,400 scattered throughout the town’s maze of harbors, channels and inlets. The abundance of moorings and the geography of the town create a challenge for Harbor Master Paul Plummer, who must keep track of them all to avoid conflicts and ensure safety.

Harpswell’s busy waters make mooring regulation a priority. “With the increasing usage on the waterfront, how do you make sure it’s being used fairly and properly?” Plummer said.

Anyone who wants a new mooring in Harpswell must apply to the town clerk’s office. Six areas have waitlists for moorings: Bethel Point, Cundy’s Harbor, Garrison Cove, Lookout Point, Mackerel Cove and Potts Harbor. Potts Harbor has the longest waitlist, with 11 names.

Once a boater has a mooring, they must pay a $50 fee to the town each year to register their mooring. They must inspect their mooring each year and paint their registration number on the mooring ball “in a legible manner with numbers at least 3 inches tall,” according to the town’s harbor and waterfront ordinance.

When Plummer started work in Harpswell in 2017, he set out to map every mooring in town and ensure their compliance with town rules. In the years since, he has found that about a quarter of the town’s moorings lack proper markings.

“A mooring in Harpswell waters shall be considered abandoned unless it is currently registered with the Town and a valid permit number is clearly painted or burned on the mooring buoy,” the ordinance states. When the harbor master determines that a mooring has been abandoned, “it may be removed or dropped” at the owner’s expense.

A sticker on a mooring ball warns the mooring owner to paint their registration number on the ball or risk removal of the mooring. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Last year, Plummer and Deputy Harbor Master Greg Coyne examined every mooring in town and placed about 600 red warning stickers on moorings without numbers. They did not drop or “sink” any moorings, opting to give every mooring owner a full year to comply with the warning.

On the water, Plummer uses a GPS to mark the location of each mooring. Back in his office, he marks the location on Google Earth with the mooring number — if marked — or the warning number.

This year, Plummer and Coyne will attempt to examine all the moorings again. They will place green warning stickers on the moorings without numbers. Plummer takes a photo of each mooring ball to document the violation and the warning.

Also this year, they have started to sink moorings that have obviously been abandoned. They place a final sticker on the mooring ball, this one yellow. Each sticker contains the harbor master’s contact information. Then they pop the ball and it sinks to the bottom. 

But when a mooring is obviously in use — even though the mooring owner still hasn’t painted numbers on the ball — “we’re going to try to work with people,” Plummer said.

“Sinking the mooring is the last thing we want to do, because that creates a hardship,” Plummer said. The mooring owner may need to hire a diver to locate and reestablish the mooring.

More than 90% of owners register their moorings. The town has 2,250 on the books. But proper marking is crucial.

Otherwise, “We have no way of knowing whether that’s a legal or illegal mooring,” Plummer said. He estimates that only 100-200 moorings are abandoned.

Each mooring ball must display the mooring registration number, like this one off The Goslings. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Plummer hopes word will spread of the town’s enforcement efforts and boaters will comply with the rules before he has to sink more moorings.

“It’s not something I want to do, but it’s the ordinance,” he said. “It’s what we have to do.”

He also wants to find a way to remove mooring hardware altogether, rather than sink moorings, which leaves debris on the sea floor.

He plans to apply for a Marine Debris Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would pay for a float with a beam and an electric winch, which he could use to raise moorings and deposit them on shore. The town could use the float to remove other marine debris, too.

The town has sought out marine contractors to perform the work, but every local marine contractor either has too much work or lacks the necessary insurance.

Plummer expects to work on the project for a couple more years before every boater in town has registered and labeled their mooring, and all the abandoned moorings have been removed.