Charting new waters on the World Wide Web

(2/16/98 The Capecodder)

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Saquatucket Harbor, (Tues, 11 Sept 01)

Harbormaster Thomas Leach shows off Harwich's busy harbors on his department’s page on the World Wide Web at:

www.town.harwich.ma.us/harbor

By Merrily Lunsford
HARWICH - Not long ago the World Wide Web was uncharted territory for Harbormaster Thomas Leach. Now Leach is navigating a Web page for the town’s harbor department and seeing for the first time what the Web is and how much of a resource it can be. "Two years ago I didn’t know what the Web was," Leach said.

At www.capecod.net/harbormaster volumes of detailed information about the town’s harbor and natural resource departments are just a few computer strokes away. "I like to think of the site as a file cabinet of sorts that we can show off our work and make anecdotal and important information about the waterfront available to the public, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Leach said. "What’s cool about it, you can look at it. The taxpayer at Wellesley can look at it. All of the boaters can look at it." The Web site has been a great resource tool, Leach said, allowing people to get the information they need, when they need it. The harbor is constantly getting calls from people requesting information, Leach said, and staffers have started to make it a practice to ask the caller if they are online. More than half say ‘yes’ and are given the Web site address. "People can’t imagine the harbormaster’s department is so complicated," Leach said. "You’ll have all the details at once (from the Web site). You want them to have the law, to know the regulations."

In addition to harbor rules, Leach has a listing of useful way points, harbor projects and services, proposed town meeting articles and notices to mariners. Leach has also put several large reports on the site accompanied with pictures and graphs. Many times a group such as the shellfish advisory group will put a lot of energy and time into putting together a report, Leach said. While only a handful of people may see the final product, Leach said putting it on the Web makes it readily accessible, requiring no postage or paper costs. "It’s a great way to present a report," he said.

The home page is also a reference source with community links and is used frequently at the customer counter in the Saquatucket office. For example, Leach said, when a tuna fisherman comes in and needs a room in Harwich, staffers can print the Harwich Accommodation page for them. When tourists come in asking where they can buy a beach sticker, they leave with a printout from the Brooks Library reference page link, a detailed map with driving directions to the highway department. As an experiment, Leach added a "Harwich Get Connected" link which is a listing telephone numbers and e-mail addresses (if they have one) of town department heads. It was an idea that Leach saw on a California town Web site. E-mail is more efficient and is a "huge" advantage over faxing, Leach said. "‘Get Connected’ gets not just town employees connected to town hall, but the whole town, heck the whole World Wide Web for that matter," Leach said. "We need to be going there."

While Leach seems to have been bitten by the Internet bug, he wasn’t always keen on the idea of setting up the Web site and needed some coaxing from his staff. Many who staff the harbor department in the summer are college students and come in with new ideas, Leach explained. "These guys pushed and pushed me on this thing (saying) ‘Tom you’ve got to start a Web site. Saquatucket Harbor needs to be first.’" With about $500 in startup costs and an additional $25 monthly fee, the Web page has been up since July.

Leach attributes 90 percent of the Web site work to seasonal assistant harbormaster Matt McLaughlin, a Harwich High School graduate and Boston College junior majoring in computer science. Last summer, when McLaughlin returned for the season, his charge was to get the department online, build a Web page that Harwich could be proud of and to teach the rest of the staff about the so-called Web page language, html, Leach said. "That probably took Matt maybe a total of four hours work," Leach said. "We were online with capecod.net with a 10 megabyte site."

Since then, the Web page has grown and now has reams of information in an easy-to-access, easy-to-use format. "It just kind of grows ... it has a mind of its own. I’m always going to add to this Web page," Leach said. "This is a big experiment to me. It really helps you to think and file information in a way people can understand." Leach spends about two hours on his computer at home trying to find different things for the site. "It’s my hobby," he said. "I get all juiced up on this stuff." Leach also likes to add novelties to the page including quotes by famous naturalists or sailors at the tops of pages. Leach even picked up a sandy-looking background from another site to add to the home page.

Some food for thought, Leach said, is to set up an active harbor Web cam like Stage Harbor in Chatham. The cost would be about $4,500. Leach also runs two other Web sites, one for the Cape and Island Harbormasters Association and another for the Harwich ice hockey team. Both sites can be accessed through the harbor home page.

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