By Amy Senk
Corona del Mar resident Paul Blank was named Newport Beach Harbormaster last spring, a grand achievement to cap off an on-the-water lifestyle that began at age 10 with a two-week sailing class offered through the city’s recreation department. The harbormaster’s job is typically described as being a lead ambassador for Newport Harbor, one of the largest recreational harbors in the country, and includes overseeing a dozen or so employees and an annual budget of $1 million-plus. But like most things in the past year or so, the first several months have been filled with surprises. I caught up with him to learn more.
Q: What role did you play as harbormaster in the days after the oil spill, and what stands out in your mind now as the most notable thing that happened?
A: The response to the Amplify Energy Oil spill in early October was swift and multifaceted. My specific roles included surveying the harbor beaches for oil contamination, monitoring the harbor entrance for potential intrusion or contamination and participation in the City of Newport Beach Emergency Operations Center, which integrated with the Unified Command Response managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. A huge amount of my time was spent communicating my findings to others in the EOC and the UCR as well as with Harbor constituents and my patrol team in the Harbor Department. When the decision was made to close the harbor entrance, I was there to witness it and then established a patrol presence to advise mariners in a firm but friendly way of the closure and alternatives while they were unable to get in or out of the harbor. As the situation evolved, my role shifted into advising mariners, local businesses and residents where they could go for support or to file claims for loss or damage sustained as a result of the spill. I also spent considerable time and effort supporting the vessel decontamination site that was established at Marina Park. I am thankful that through the duration of the crisis, we were not forced to close or curtail activities on the harbor. Sailing classes, races, rowing, paddle boarding and casual harbor cruising all continued even though the entrance was closed. While not everyone could engage in all the activities they may have wished to while the entrance was closed, the harbor remained clean, safe and well enjoyed.
Q: We keep seeing mega yachts off the coast of Newport Beach. Have they caused any problems?
A: Newport Harbor has become a more popular port of call for mega yachts this year. Some vessels choose to enjoy anchorage off Big Corona Beach for their visits. Others have stopped there while waiting for a favorable tide to enter and transit the harbor. I am pleased to have made the process of reserving and making use of the Large Vessel Anchorage easier for the yacht managers. I am also pleased with the tenor and tone of the dialogue that continues with nearby residents and businesses. Concerns remain about traffic and congestion in that part of the harbor, but no negative impacts have been observed or reported to me. Newport Harbor is a “no-discharge harbor,” meaning no waste or refuse may go overboard. All vessels mooring or anchoring in Newport Harbor, including these mega yachts with dozens of paid, professional crews, are subject to dye-tab testing of their marine sanitation systems. This is the method we use to test the integrity of the vessel’s plumbing and waste holding tank. One vessel was tested upon arrival recently and didn’t pass. We allowed the crew an opportunity to check the settings on all their pumps and valves. A little less than an hour later we returned to re-test and the vessel passed. No pollution or waste was discharged into the bay in that first test, so no citation was issued, and the vessel was welcome to stay in the harbor. If any vessel is subsequently witnessed discharging into the bay, citations are written which come with a financial penalty and the vessel may be asked to leave the harbor. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often.
Q: What is the Take Back Our Harbor movement, and what are your thoughts about it?
A: Take Back Our Harbor is the tagline for the newly formed Newport Harbor Foundation. The Foundation is a nonprofit group with a mission similar to the Newport Bay Conservancy. While the Newport Bay Conservancy is focused exclusively on improving Upper Newport Bay –essentially everything north of the PCH Bridge – the Newport Harbor Foundation is focused on preserving and improving the lower Newport Harbor. While I am not directly involved with the group, I am supportive of their mission. The group’s efforts align nicely with the Harbor Department’s goal of keeping the harbor clean, safe and well enjoyed.