NORTH KINGSTOWN – Edward L. “Ted” Hughes has seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets during his many years as a recreational fisherman and boating enthusiast.
“My whole life has been spent on the water,” he says. “I started at eight or nine and was fishing at 12; I began boating in my early teens and got my captain’s license in the late ‘80s.”
At 59, his expertise has received an official imprimatur: Hughes is the town’s new harbormaster; he was appointed by the Town Council on May 23 and began patrolling last week. With warmer weather finally arriving, there are a lot of boats out of storage and moored in the cove and he’s getting familiar with all of them.
The water itself enchants him, especially since his diagnosis of Stage 4 esophageal cancer three years ago. Hughes, who is in remission, speaks with a raspy voice, the result of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
“ I always get that feeling of awe,” he says, describing the sense of being alone with the sky and water. “There’s such a feeling of being at peace on the water. The further out I go, the more intense it gets.”
Surviving cancer, he notes, “gives you a different perspective. I’m living now, in the moment, not worrying about tomorrow. Once I learned how to do that, it changed my whole life. I wish I hadn’t had to find it out this way.”
Hughes, a Cranston native who has lived in North Kingstown eight years, is ideally suited for his new job. His career was spent along the Eastern Seaboard and overseas – Midway, Panama, Costa Rica, Fiji, many Pacific islands – and he was required to take a safety course. Hughes was also an emergency medical technician. While those credentials aren’t up to date, he keeps his CPR certification current.
He is also extremely knowledgeable about Narragansett Bay. “I was the founder of Clean the Bay,” he says. “It was my program when I got sick. It’s the most favorite thing I’ve ever done.”
Police Chief Thomas Mulligan, to whom the harbormaster reports, says it was experience and personality that caused the search committee to choose Hughes from among 14 applicants for the harbormaster’s position.
”It was a matter of his extensive resume, years in boating, the fact that he’s very personable; he keyed into the idea that the job is as much a pr relationship with the community as it is [about] enforcing the laws. That was a big sell for us. A lot of it was personality.”
Hughes and Norman MacKay, assistant harbormaster, began patrolling Memorial Day weekend and will continue to Columbus Day. “I’m also on call 24-7,” Hughes says.
He has nothing but praise for his predecessor, Mark Knapp. “He was here 10 years and it’s amazing how organized and efficient the program is, how smoothly it runs. It’s all computerized [making operations] much easier.”
As we enter the summer season, Hughes plans to be vigilant when it comes to the potential hazards of drinking too much and getting behind the wheel of a boat – exactly the sort of tragedy that happens with cars on the roadway.
“The town policies are clear. If there’s a situation I can’t control, I call the enforcement department at DEM [Department of Environmental Management]. I can also call a couple of officers from North Kingstown.”
He also knows what to do in case of medical emergency such as a heart attack on board a boat.
“The fire department and I would both get the call,” Hughes explains. “The fire department has a boat. If I could get the [stricken] person on my boat, I could deliver the victim to their boat.”
Hughes, who has been a licensed captain for 25 years, attended harbormaster school in the early ‘90s, under the University of Rhode Island’s Sea Grant program. In his new job, he plans to be on the water about five hours a day; his travels will include swinging by the Jamestown-Verazzano Bridge and other sometimes overlooked areas.
“People could get stranded on Dutch Island,” he points out. “That’s why you go around to all the islands, make sure there weren’t accidents the night before.”
Hughes has a wife, two grown children and a stepson in California. He also has a 15-month-old grandson.
“He was the prize of surviving” cancer, he says.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .