Maxine's the queen of the harbour

By Kate MaxwellSILLY HATS may be decreed one day at Southwold harbour, when things are quiet and the Harbour Master feels like testing her powers.For ancient decree gives her the right to invent new laws on a whim or fancy, like a queen in a fairy tale.

By Kate Maxwell

SILLY HATS may be decreed one day at Southwold harbour, when things are quiet and the Harbour Master feels like testing her powers.

For ancient decree gives her the right to invent new laws on a whim or fancy, like a queen in a fairy tale.

“It's one of the few jobs left where you can wake up in the morning and make a law,” said Maxine Owles , one of a handful of female holders of the position nationwide.

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“I've seriously considered saying everybody's got to wear funny hats just to exercise my power.”

One law she has instituted is that the half dozen youngsters who sail their dinghies up and down the harbour must obey the speed limit of four knots and wear their life jackets.

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“If they break my rules they will have to pay harbour dues or be banned!” she said.

In the depths of winter making up laws amuses her on a quiet day.

For whereas a few years ago Southwold would have been busy year round with fishing boats going out and in daily, there are now just three left, and most of the action takes place during the summer when the pleasure boats are out and about.

“In winter I'm at my desk a lot,” said Maxine, between collecting harbour dues owed from last year and making cups of coffee for various people dropping in to her office on Southwold's Blackshore. “But in summer it can be very busy.”

Illegal immigrants, ill divers, incompetent sailors, sudden storms and extra high flood tides all added to the dramas of the planned events and rallies last year, when rescue helicopters sent little sailing boats into a spin and plain-clothes police got the close-knit boating community gossiping.

“Part of the job is being a gossip and finding out what's going on,” she said. “That suits me.”

Little gets past her notice - a boat where it shouldn't be, a fee overdue - and, she said, being naturally bossy is useful.

“Being female helps. I can usually get people to do things, whereas if I was a man they might want to thump me. Somehow they don't mind being bawled at by me. I think women are more diplomatic, too.”

Before becoming Harbour Master at Southwold Maxine, known by everybody at the harbour as Max, was working at a filling station after the family boat-building business had folded.

“I wandered down here one day and the retiring master said why don't you apply? I said I didn't think I could do it, but he said, you can tie up a boat can't you? So I faxed an application across that day and got it.”

But Maxine was no stranger to the salty language of the sea.

At nine years old she learned to sail, and accompanied her father on fishing trips from Lyme Regis in Dorset. As a teenager she had taken her yachtmaster's off-shore certificate and was never far from the water. She also holds a first aid certificate and a radio ticket.

Her son Robert, 16, also sails, and her husband is a delivery skipper who takes other people's sailing boats all up the coast and to the continent.

Last year for their holiday they sailed the Peter Duck, famous in children's literature through the stories of Arthur Ransome, to Holland.

Now she has sole charge of both banks of the Blyth from a distance of 1000 metres around the harbour entrance. Many of the boats have to be voice piloted in because of shifting sand banks at the harbour mouth.

An employee of Waveney District Council, she manages 11 fishing stages, each supporting a number of boats, and another eight stages for pleasure craft, along with 400 yards of staging for visiting boats, which will take up to 30 vessels. In total she can have around 100 boats to keep an eye on.

Most are small, although last summer she had a call from the crew of the Gallant, a huge sailing barge of 128ft with a 30ft bowsprit which she piloted up the narrow channel to a safe haven.

Much of what happens on the Blackshore is at the mercy of the weather, but for Maxine that is all part of its magical charm.

“The weather can be evil sometimes,” she said, “and we have to run round tying the boats down which are trying to break loose. I've had water seeping through the floorboards of my office, and in winter it can get freezing cold.

“But on a sunny summer days I can take a wander along the shore with my dogs and it's called work. Then I can't believe I'm being paid for doing something I love.”


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