Digest>Archives> January 2003

Our Year on the Rock . . .

By Phil Toomire


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The station before restoration, when the Coast ...

The phone rang. My wife answered it. “It’s them,” she said. “What should I tell them?” After a long pause, I said “Let’s do it,” which she passed on to the caller. We had no idea what lay ahead. What were we getting into? We only knew that this was a chance of a lifetime, and we shouldn’t let this opportunity and adventure pass us by. That following year will go down as the most exciting chapter in both of our lives. We were going to operate a bed and breakfast in a working lighthouse on the northern part of San Francisco Bay. East Brother Light Station (EBLS) was going to be our home and place of business. It’s governed by a non-profit organization and Board of Directors. Important decisions or boat problems were brought to the board. We could run the B&B as we felt necessary, from planning the meals to reservations. We all worked well together.

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The East Brother Light station in California.
Photo by: Michele Avijard

EBLS was built in 1873-74. It’s placed on a blasted away 1-acre rock sitting out opposite the Sisters rock/islands on a very narrow north leg of San Francisco Bay. It’s an important navigational aid for the major shipping lane that goes up to Sacramento. They also blasted a 30-foot deep water cistern that holds 50 thousand gallons of rain water. During a rain, the plugs are pulled, and the water runs down a concrete watershed/patio into a domed cavity that sits in the middle. It’s then filtered and pumped to the rooms. An ingenious system. Kept us in water the entire dry season. We discouraged people from showering, and it didn’t seem to be a problem. Everyone only stayed for one night, and they appreciated the conservation aspect of the situation. My wife and I could shower, if any of you are thinking otherwise.

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The U.S. Lighthouse Service ran the lighthouse operation until 1939, when the U.S. Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. Large families occupied the lighthouse, having to light the original lens wick filled with whale oil On the many foggy nights, they’d have to fire up the steam boilers to drive the foghorns, hauling coal up the long ramp from the boat. In 1969, the Coast Guard automated everything, and abandoned the lighthouse, leaving it to rot away. In the late 70’s, a group of concerned citizens formed the non-profit corporation EBLS. They raised over 500,000 dollars, found the original plans, and restored it to those exact specifications and appearance, all the way down to the hand shaped exterior wooden shingles. To have it self-supportive, a bed and breakfast was added, which opened for business in 1982.

Out of 250 couples that applied for the position, we were selected. We met all the qualifications. Between the two of us, we had worked in the hospitality field, owned and operated a restaurant, didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, no pets, no kids, and I had boating experience. I did have to pass a Coast Guard exam to be licensed to carry up to 6 people in our island powerboat. A group of volunteers helped us move two rooms of furniture onto the island and into our private living quarters on the ground floor. We were the second couple to operate the B&B, so we were trained by the original people on all the daily routines, understanding the tide and current flows, and where to shop for our weekly provisions. We were on our own after a couple months. We were in charge of running a B&B in a lighthouse built in 1873 in San Francisco. What had we done?

We only had three rooms to rent out, operating Thursday - Sunday. At 4 o’clock I’d pick up the 6 guests at a small yacht harbor adjacent to the island and bring them over to the island. Since we brought them over in the late afternoon, we were obligated to prepare and serve a 5 course dinner with selected wines, and an upscale continental breakfast the next morning. Before dinner, I’d give the guests a blast of the original steam-driven diaphone foghorn that could be heard beyond the banks of the bay. It was deafening. It had been converted from coal burning to compressed air, and still gives an earth shattering bellow.

After preparing, serving, and cleaning up dinner, it was late into the evening, and we were pooped. Up early the next morning, we prepared fresh fruit, squeezed oranges for juice, and heated French pastries to be served. We got plenty of exercise, as the guests rooms and dining area were all upstairs. All the 6 guests sat at a beautiful donated round dining table, all swapping stories, envious of our dream assignment, a Shangri-La, Camelot... little did they know how much work went into this operation. It was work, but the history and beautiful setting made it all worthwhile. Add the pleasure of meeting 6 new guests four times a week, bringing these total strangers together for a night I’m sure they’ll never forget. We made many new friends, and still stay in touch with several of them.

I had a very close encounter with my maker on several occasions. As the sea loving and lighthouse friends that read this story will understand, the ocean waters are very unforgiving. Nature does take its own course, and it’s wise to prepare for what it offers you. The lighthouse is a couple miles from two major rivers that flow into that narrow part of the bay. With San Francisco Bay having the reputation of a “toilet bowl” tide table, I had to deal with the strong tide coming in and going against the fast flow of the river water coming down. The waters met in the middle, where I had to lower our boat from an electric winch. We purposely kept the boat out of the water when not in use knowing the dangers of the surrounding waters.

Coming across one afternoon with my 6 guests, we encountered the swirling waters and fast moving tide in my path. I knew in my own mind that it didn’t look good. We were in a very dangerous situation, but a voice came to me not to let my fears be known to the passengers. We all had our lifevests on, but I didn’t have a radio to call for help, and I wasn’t sure if any of them could swim. I saw a huge wave coming toward me, slowed down, angled my direction, went down and came up crashing through the wave. I no longer had control over the situation. I couldn’t steer or control the throttle at that moment. I seemed to let go, and put my trust in a higher power. The wave passed, everyone got drenched, suitcases floating in a foot of water. Engines still going, we were able to reach the island, climb out the boat up our fixed ladder, and got the boat out of the water. It was over. The passengers were all smiles, excited over the wave bobbing adventure they just experienced. They thought it was par for the course, and it was fun. They also congratulated me for my fine navigational skills that safely brought them over. I never told them the real story, and took the compliments in stride with a ton of humility.

We were booked a year in advance, all prepaid, playing off all the publicity the lighthouse and B&B received. Disney did a story about the lighthouse and us running it, all the local TV stations did stories about us, even had a remote broadcast from the island. All the airline magazines had done stories. We realized that we were only part of the historic past of this beautiful lighthouse. We were just keeping it going, and we appreciated the attention it received.

I’d love to circle the island several times giving photo ops to our new guests. Beautiful day, calm bay... both Merc 75’s leaving a beautiful wake... At these moments, I’d say to myself...”...and I get paid for this?” We kept a diary of our daily activities and memories. But after a year, it was time to move on. We passed it on to one of 6 couples that had been considered at the end of the initial selection process. We became friends, and recommended to the board that they take over, and they did. She was pregnant, but we convinced the Board it’s not a problem, and reminded them to look back in history, where large families were hired by the Lighthouse Service, before the Coast Guard took over. Many babies were born on the island. They had to row their kids to shore. The Board approved, she had her contractions one night serving guests, said “I think it’s time,” and everyone headed down to the boat landing, lowered the boat in pitch darkness, and disappeared into the night toward the yacht harbor. She had her baby, was back on the island a couple days later with the new addition, with Grand-mother in tow. They were there for about 4 years. Now, I’m not sure who’s running the show. I invite all readers to check out their web-site. www.EBLS.org.

For those of you that made it this far, I hope I’ve given you a glimpse of my memory, a chapter of my life that I’ll certainly never forget. Not very many people can ever tell the endless tales I filed away during that year. Maybe I should write a book on the experience. Each day could be a chapter. Each day was one of total unexpectation. I think that’s what made it so exciting. Certainly not a boring job. My wife in this story is no longer with me, as we had a very amicable separation in ‘89. I know she’ll also remember that year with a smile, tear, and sometimes a little fear. She weathered that experience well, God love her. She’s selling real estate in Prescott, Arizona. “Always go for the gusto” was our motto.

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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