Digest>Archives> January 2003

Last Keepers are Newest Keepers

Auxilarists taking over at oldest lightstation

By Merle Wiggin


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The Boston Lighthouse.

According to a recent announcement by Sally Snowman, Chair-Boston Light Augmentation Program, Captain D. R. May, Commander U. S. Coast Guard Group Boston, has challenged the Coast Guard Auxiliary to professionally qualify enough Auxilarists to provide 70% manning of Light Station Boston by the end of 2003. This, according to the Coast Guard, would free up active duty Coast Guard personnel for other demanding tasks. This challenge is a demanding one as the qualification process to be a Watchstander at Boston Light requires an intensive training program.

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The author, Merle Wiggin, lubricating the chariot ...

Boston Light is located on Little Brewster Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor, approximately ten miles from downtown Boston. It is the oldest light station in the nation (1716) and is currently the only light station still staffed by U. S. Coast Guard active duty personnel. It also has been designated as a registered National Historic Landmark.

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Sammy and Cyrus, that’s Sammy on the left. Cyrus ...

The “Watchstander Qualification Program,” initiated by U.S.C.G. Group Boston and Light Station Boston, was established in March 2000 along with the Coast Guard Auxiliary Boston Light Augmentation Program. The qualification process to become a Coast Guard approved Watchstander is an intensive one that includes a minimum of two four-day, round the clock “on the job” training sessions at the light station under the auspices of the regular duty Coast Guard. The training includes operation, care and service of an 1859 second order Fresnel lens and its complex drive gear mechanism. Included, for example, is training on the procedures of changing the light’s lamp, a 25 step process that is required every three to six months. Training also includes maintenance of the light’s operating mechanism and its complex electrical support system that includes an emergency generator and all of its related switch gear and support systems. Proficiency is required in the servicing and resetting of the fog horn system, a very complex piece of apparatus that has a tendency to malfunction in the middle of the night. Knowledge is also required for the maintenance of the keeper’s house and its utility support systems, especially of its water (from cisterns) and sanitary facilities.

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Inside the second order Fresnel lens.

The qualification process includes demonstration of the light station’s history to a level that one can function as a qualified interpreter (tour guide) to the visiting public. One must be familiar with the details of the light station and the changes and improvements made over time. Two of the more significant ones was the installation of the present Fresnel lens in 1859 and its change from kerosene to electric in 1948, and its subsequent increase of its light level to 2,000,000 candlepower. The height of the 1783 tower was raised 14 feet in 1859 to better accommodate the Fresnel lens and improve the lighthouse’s effective range.

As Light Station Boston is serviced by an underwater electrical cable which has a history of occasional failure, an important part of the qualification process is knowledge and hands on operational demonstration of the station’s emergency generator and its support equipment. Without this generator the light could become inoperative, which, of course, is not allowed to happen. There are four pages of detailed procedures that one must learn and demonstrate proficiency with the generator and electrical systems alone.

One of the more pleasant duties at Boston Light is taking care of the two black Labs. Sammy and Cyrus are the official Light Station mascots. Sammy is getting old but takes no guff from the younger Cyrus. Between the two of them they drink nearly five gallons of water a day. Cyrus is a perpetual beachcomber and swims out and retrieves all sorts of treasures.

Not everyone is eligible to be considered for a Watchstander position at Boston Light. The initial minimum must qualifications include:

* Member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary;

* Attendance at a one-day pre-selection augmentation training program;

* Boat crew qualified;

* Completion of the Coast Guard Risk Management course;

* Be a qualified interpreter (tour guide) for Light Station Boston (this in itself requires a five hour ashore training program, three one-day on-island orientation and demonstrated knowledge of the history of Boston Light Station);

* Willingness to invest in both undress blue and working blue uniforms;

* Available for a minimum of two, four to seven day training duties;

* Available for a minimum of one Watchstanding duties per year (two is preferred);

* Willingness to be transported to Boston Light via an Auxiliary vessel;

* Committed to acquiring working knowledge and skill with the items listed in the “Watchstander Qualifying Guide,” a fifty item check-off sheet;

* Demonstrated proficiency in the use of VHF radio including proper terminology;

* Physical fitness to climb the 100-foot tower twice a day as well as a 10-foot vertical ladder with gear (vessel deck to top of pier); and

* A commitment to complete the training program once one starts it.

After the successful completion of the two training periods, the candidate meets before a Coast Guard Review Board to show professional knowledge of the station by answering questions correctly, followed by a hands on demonstration of the servicing of the light and the station’s various systems. The showing of proficiency also entails detailed weather reporting including the sea conditions as an accurate evaluation of the wind and waves at the brow is what is used so that a proper decision can be made for a safe tour boat docking. Also required is the daily evaluation of position and light characteristics of the 22 surrounding aids to navigation.

Anyone interested in becoming professionally qualified to serve as a Watchstander (lighthouse keeper) at Boston Light Station, should contact Sally Snowman, Chair-Boston Light Augmentation Program. Telephone: 508-746-5993 or e-mail s.snowmanph.d@worldnet.att.net.

NOTE: As of November 5th, 2002 Merlon Wiggin of East Marion, New York, author of this article, was notified that he had met all Coast Guard requirements to be a Watchstander at historic Boston Light, the only manned lighthouse in the U. S. To date he is the only one from Long Island, New York to meet these professional qualifications and one of five in the 1st Southern Region consisting of the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Wiggin is a retired Air Force Colonel, holds a Coast Guard 100 Ton Masters License, and is President of East End Lighthouses, Inc. a Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of the lighthouses of the North Fork of Eastern Long Island, New York.

One of his first duty assignments, after becoming qualified, was being one of the two watchstanders with a predicted Northeaster, gale force winds and heavy seas to the extent that evacuation was discussed, an occurrence that has happen only three times in the Coast Guard’s history on the island. When he was asked what it was like being cut off from shore for nearly two days with gale force winds and ten to twelve foot seas battering the island, he replied, “I loved it and wouldn’t have missed it for the world!” The Coast Guard person on duty, Ben O’Brien, and Wiggin did a lot of preparing and securing such as hauling the rigid inflatable and stowing it in the boathouse. At the height of the storm that night the salt spray was so thick that visibility was reduced to a half mile, which activated the station’s fog horn requiring them to service it in the middle of the night including a check of its calibration. (Cyrus went with them, but Sammy stayed upstairs in Merle’s room beside the bed.)

This story appeared in the January 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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