Harbormaster Sheila Lucey keeps the tradition of women on the water afloat on Nantucket.
Nantucket’s Harbormaster has a million-dollar view from her office. To the east and west lies the dinghy-strewn stretch of beach along Washington Street, while straight out her window, Town Pier reaches out into the harbor. There could be no better place for Sheila Lucey to hang her pink baseball cap every day. “I have always been connected to the water,” she says. “It’s all I know… it’s all I’ve ever done.”
Lucey’s words echo those of the legendary Coast Guardswoman “Madaket” Millie Jewett, who patrolled the west end of the island for more than seventy years. The parallels between the two abound, from a love of animals to a fierce loyalty to the people of the island. What was said of Millie — that she could “fish with the best of them and handle any sort of craft in almost any type of blow” — can be said of Lucey, whose cumulative thirty-three years of service on the water have made her legs more worthy of the sea than of the land.
Lucey came to know Nantucket as a young Coast Guardswoman while stationed in Chatham. “I would come over to paint the lighthouses and work on the buoys,” she says. When the position of senior chief at Station Brant Point opened up in 2002, Lucey applied for the job. “It was a dream come true when I got it because I had always loved coming out to Nantucket,” she says. “I knew it would be a really exciting and busy job, because everything and everybody has to come by or over the water to get here. The water is the lifeline. It’s a big responsibility.”
As head of the station, Lucey came to appreciate the bond between Nantucketers and her Coasties. “It is like nothing I had ever seen before in my career,” she says. “It was and still is a privilege to serve the people of this island.” When Lucey was faced with the prospect of being re-assigned in 2007, she opted to retire from the Coast Guard after twenty-four years of service to stay on Nantucket. She then became the assistant harbormaster, and five years later, the harbormaster. “The job was perfect for me. It was very similar to what I had been doing, but on a smaller scale,” she says.
Maintenance and administrative duties consume the bulk of Lucey’s time in the winter, but she runs pretty much non-stop from April through October. Her staff swells from one to sixty, and her routine becomes as regimented as it was when she was in command of the station. Yet, at any moment, she is ready to drop everything when a distress call comes in. Some calls are serious — like when she rescued a young man who was clinging for his life to a buoy in Polpis Harbor after his waders filled with water. Other calls, however, are more humorous.
“Last year, we received a report of a boat that had run aground in Warrens Landing,” Lucey remembers. “We went out to check, and the boater started speaking to us in French. His boat was registered in the US, so I asked him if he spoke English. He said he did. I asked him what happened, and he told me that he had left New York two days earlier and was headed to Belgium. He thought that he had landed on some ‘land mass’ off the coast of Belgium. I told him he was on Nantucket. He was surprised and didn’t really believe me until I showed him on his GPS. We talked him into returning to New York and advised that he gain a little more experience before attempting a transatlantic passage.”
Once Lucey received a call from an inexperienced boater who was lost in the Head of the Harbor. When she asked him to identify some landmarks so that she could pinpoint his location, the man responded that he was under the moon. With a smile and a shrug, it’s all in a day’s work for Sheila Lucey.
Nantucket’s waters have been under her vigilant watch for so many years that it is hard to imagine Lucey ever leaving her post, but she is contemplating retirement. While she says she will never leave the island for good, she likes the idea of spending the winter in a place where the fish bite in January. Of course, much like Madaket Millie, Sheila Lucey will never truly relinquish her sense of duty to the people of Nantucket.