On an orange and black, crane-bearing barge, 56-year-old Norris "Tiger" Marston drove wooden pilings behind the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange Thursday morning.
His work's usually done in places like that, out of sight and usually out of mind.
Except for one project.
Over the winter, Marston and a three-man crew build a new dock for the Greasy Pole, after storms toppled the previous dock into the harbor last October.
Driving nine new pilings and fixing a deck isn't a complicated project, he said. But building a new dock for one of the city's best-known competitions and traditions has brought more pats on the back than he says he's had on any job yet.
No matter where he goes, he said, people don't stop talking about the pole.
"Every single person I see says 'Good job on the pole,'" Marston said.
Marston says he's not used to recognition. Driving piles isn't a glamorous business. The work's done in forgotten places, wedged between piers or under docks collapsed from neglect and old age.
The son of a Naval commander grew up around fish and fishermen, and making a living off the sea seemed like the natural choice for his life.
Marston said he started fishing on Gorges Bank at 14, but headed to Alaska and then the Grand Banks catching swordfish. You could make good money fishing then, enough to buy a house in a season, said Marston.
But fishing, he says, wasn't the way he wanted live the rest of his life. He promised himself he'd quit fishing when he turned 40 — and he did.
"Thirty, forty, fifty day trips in the Grand Banks aren't a good way to run life," Marston said, "You're never home."
He built Marston Marine and his orange-and black barge 15 years ago. Before setting up shop, he said, he hadn't seen anyone drive a pile, yet alone drive one himself. Now, he's one of the few people in his line of work that does it by himself.
Working alone and out of sight, he said, makes him embarrassed about the recognition. Three guys, Joe Bolin, Aaron Toughy and Chad Ketchopulos did as much work as he did, Marston said.
All of that work came after a summer's worth of waves and a few rounds with Tropical Storm Irene over a late-August summer weekend weakened the pole dock. When it fell, Marston said, he wasn't surprised. He's kept the pole up over the years, and noticed worms had started eating away at the pilings where they meet the mud.
Marston said he did some work to shore it up, but couldn't get in to tighten the cross bracing because of permitting concerns. Ironically, on the very day he got the go-ahead to fix it, the dock collapsed into the water of Pavilion Beach in the wee hours of a Friday morning, Sept. 30.
Marston dragged the collapsing dock over to Rose Marine that afternoon. It had actually been the second Greasy Pole dock, set in place built after the first platform, built in the 1930s, and stood until 1970, when a Sunoco barge broke loose from its moorings and crashed into it, effectively slicing off its legs.
In November, Marston started work on the platform and, between then and April, drove nine fiberglass pilings to assemble the dock. The project cost $75,000, paid for by donations, but Marston donated his time as well.
The work, he said, was slow going through the winter. While the weather was mild, Marston said, a southerly wind pounded away at the outer harbor all season long.
"It's tough to get everything precise when you're breaking down two or three foot waves," he said. "It's wait for the roll wait for the roll, wait for the roll and drop it."
The new dock, though it looks a little different, should last for over 50 years, Marston said, thanks to the fiberglass poles and better construction.
Having lived in Gloucester most of his life, Marston said he knew the project was significant and he and the others gave everything the could to get the pole and its platform back in their rightful places.
"It's kind of an honor," he said. "We all understood the significance, being Gloucester guys."
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455 or at email@example.com.