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Thomas Farragher

A vaccinated summer and welcome signs of relief at the tip of Cape Cod

‘When they’re on the water, they want to be able to exhale.’

Provincetown harbormaster Don German maneuvers his boat for a tour of the harbor.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVINCETOWN — At the helm of the 24-foot boat he uses to patrol the sun-dappled harbor here, Don German squints into the mid-morning glare and delivers an ad hoc history lesson.

“The Mayflower Compact was signed right here in this harbor,” he tells me, pointing at the 252-foot, iconic Pilgrim Monument that rises in the near distance. “Plymouth doesn’t like it. But it’s true.”

German should know.

He’s the ultimate authority on these waters, the kid who grew up around the Chesapeake Bay and then fell in love with the sea that would become his avocation and, all these years later, his life’s work.


A view of Provincetown from the water.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Now, as Memorial Day and the traditional start of the summer season approaches, the 73-year-old Provincetown harbormaster is ready for what’s just over the deep-blue horizon at the sparkling tip of Cape Cod.

“I think it’s going to be the busiest season this town has ever seen,’' German declared. “Especially on the weekends because people are still working. But on the weekends, they’re off. And it’s like: Finally, I can get out and get away.

“And we’re already seeing that.”

Welcome to Memorial Day 2021, the season to — at long last — exhale.

Governor Charlie Baker has announced that the state will lift all restrictions on businesses Memorial Day weekend, accelerating the full reopening date by a full two months.

That cheering you hear is coming from the shopkeepers and the restaurateurs, the bartenders and the renters of bicycles who are eager to consign COVID-19 to the history books and to greet the summer of 2021 like an old, favorite friend who’s finally found the way back home.

“Last summer, we did 40 percent of our business,” said Shawn McNulty, co-owner of the Lobster Pot, which is now beginning its 49th season here. “You can say it’s a disaster. But we are working and we are healthy. We didn’t have any issues with anybody getting sick. We’re anticipating a good season.”


Down the street, so is Mark Janoplis, who owns John’s Footlong and is preparing for his 24th summertime season.

“We’re expecting a big summer,” Janoplis said as he prepared for lunchtime customers. “People are feeling better about things. People are getting vaccinated. That’s a huge deal. You can see relief in the faces of people walking around here now.”

In other words, break out the sunscreen, fill the cooler, pack a good book, and head down to the dock for an afternoon on Cape Cod Bay.

That’s where Don German and his staff will be waiting, prepared to bring order to a harbor that – at the height of summer – is home to 1,500 boats and whose population swells each time another ferry eases into the dock.

The biggest problem? Excessive speeds.

“A lot of boaters, they’re recreational people,” the harbormaster tells me as we cruise just offshore. “They’re out to have a good time. And they go on the water to get away from the rules and the structure of work.

“So, when they’re on the water, they want to be able to exhale. ‘I’m free. I can do what I want.’ And I understand that mentality. But there are safety issues we need to deal with. And I’m not one to write citations quickly. I prefer warnings. I like to educate people as opposed to punishing them.”


Don German grew up on the water, running boats on Chesapeake Bay.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

He’s uncommonly prepared to deliver those seafaring lessons.

German grew up on the water, running boats on Chesapeake Bay, learning how to handle them when he was just 8 years old. When he was 13, he announced to his parents that he wanted to join the Sea Scouts, a branch of the Boy Scouts for which he wore a kid’s version of a Navy uniform.

He toyed with the idea of following his father into work at Bethlehem Steel. Instead, he went to community college, got a degree in psychology, and then a master’s degree in public administration from Morgan State University in Baltimore.

But then he charted a course that would lead him back to the sea, becoming proficient in celestial navigation and, in the fall of 1988, earning his unlimited master’s license.

“Unlimited master means any size, any ship in the world,” he explained.

His life on the water has taken him up and down the Chesapeake Bay as a relief captain. He served in the Army Reserve and for six months was the harbormaster in Ketchikan, Alaska.

All of it was important training for his job now on Cape Cod Bay.

“I like helping people,” he told me as we approached the breakwater. “And most people look at me as someone who’s willing to help them as opposed to someone who’s telling them what to do. I like that. That makes me feel good.

“I’ve got a strong background in this field and I might say, ‘Can I give you some pointers on how you might want to anchor?’ You can offend somebody who just bought a $400,000 boat. And they don’t know the stem from the stern. So, if I step on their ego, then I’m not going to help them. They’re not going to let me help them.”


German is married to Ray Wiggs, who lived in Georgia when the two met and they lived there until his husband’s mother died in 2014.

“I don’t want to get into the politics, but we were in Georgia,” he said. “So, we were anxious to get out of Georgia and we moved here because it’s a very gay friendly place. I thought I had all I ever wanted from being on the water.

“And I came here. Smelled the salt air. And I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to be out on the water.’”

So that’s what he did. He returned to the sea that has nurtured him since his boyhood in Maryland.

And now it’s time to greet another season of salty air, suntan lotion, and gentle waves.

The restaurants are stocking up on clam chowder. The T-shirt racks are full. And the local artists are ready and relieved to greet new customers.

You’ll find Don German down on the docks or out on Cape Cod Bay doing what he’s trained his entire life for.

“The COVID restrictions are about to be lifted,” he said. “So, I think we’re prepared for that. I do think our weekends are going to be busier than ever. I think people feel safer.


“That’s not to say I won’t have August-itus,” he said. “We all love the tourists. But, boy, they can wear you down. But our livelihoods depend on them here, so we try to make them as welcome as can be.”

Yes, the welcome mat is out in Provincetown.

They’re ready to embrace a warm summer after seasons of disease and despair that will be disappear like the dew if – somebody cue Patti Page — you spend an evening watching the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.