I’m sure many people envision a lighthouse keeper as a lonely, socially disadvantaged recluse sitting on a rocky shore, watching a light flash its warning to mariners.
They probably think of it as a good job for a lazy person. After all, how hard is it to turn the light on in the evening and off at sun up? You may need to interrupt your game of solitaire several times during the night to look out and see if the lamp is still burning, and of course, every week or two, if the lens needs polishing.
Having served on two lighthouses, I can assure you the boring moments are balanced by interesting and often exciting events. There are also lots of hard work and you’re often wet and cold.
When I arrived at Anacapa Island in 1956, I was surprised to find families – one with children. The housing area contained four Spanish-revival-style homes built in 1939. Each house had a basement, fireplace, wood floors and tile countertops. Married men and their wives occupied three of the houses, and five bachelors shared the other one.
Our officer in charge, Boatswain Mate First Class Larry Boylan and his wife Lois, had two children, Vicky, 4, and Jerry, 2. At first, I felt concern for the safety of the youngsters but I soon learned they were well disciplined, and everyone on the island watched out for them. A wire fence surrounded the housing area and we tried to keep the gates closed as much as possible.
Being 11 miles off California’s coast, there was no local fire department or rescue squad. We generated our own electricity and imported fresh water from the mainland via Coast Guard buoy tenders. In case of an emergency, we could plan on more than an hour for a Coast Guard helicopter to reach the island, and over two hours for a cutter from Santa Barbara. Duty at an offshore lighthouse certainly differed from serving in an urban area.
The station had a 30-foot boat, a 16-foot skiff and a rubber raft. At various times, we used them all in searching for and rescuing members of the public.
Primary duties of lighthouse personnel at Anacapa involved watch standing, which included more than just observing the light as its Fresnel lens swept concentrated beams across the sky. Each evening before turning on the light, the watch stander removed a canvas cover from the glass array, and upon extinguishing the light in the morning, replaced the cover. The sun’s rays, concentrated by the focusing power of a stationary lens, could cause a fire in the tower room.
One generator stayed on line continuously, and we started a second to power the lower cargo boom (crane) while lifting the 8,000-pound station boat to its cradle. When visibility dropped below 10 miles, we cranked an air compressor engine to supply the foghorn and turned on the light, even during the day. The watch stander served as the duty engineer, regardless of his rate.
In addition to monitoring the light and engine room, he also visually scanned the sea around the island and kept an ear on the two-way radio. On each shift, he observed and compiled a report on weather conditions and relayed the information to the National Weather Service.
At set intervals, the duty man tuned in WWV, the National Bureau of Standards radio station, and adjusted the two Seth Thomas pendulum clocks. The radio beacon, controlled by the clocks, had to be timed accurately to broadcast every third minute in foggy weather and on the hour and half hour during good visibility. Two other stations covered the intervals between, allowing navigators to triangulate with a radio direction finder to fix their position.
The clocks also controlled the fog signal so nearby mariners could check the time difference between the radio transmission and the deep bellow of the diaphone horn to compute their distance from the island.
Secondary duties at Anacapa included maintenance and supply. With four diesel generators, two diesel air compressors, two cargo booms, a Dodge Power Wagon truck and the 30-foot lighthouse boat, we had plenty of machinery to maintain, not counting the radios and electronic gear for controlling the radio beacon and fog signal. Also, the buildings needed routine maintenance and painting.
Although not a lifeboat station, we aided boaters in distress whose plight came to our attention (See “SOS at Sea,” Lighthouse Digest, February 2003). Launching and retrieving the station boat in stormy seas never became routine – particularly with wind-driven waves crashing into the dock and rebounding from the back of the cove, which often looked like the inside of a washing machine. Any vessel tied to the dock would have been quickly ripped loose, so we used a boom on the lower landing to lift the 30-footer to a cradle above the dock for storage.
Supply trips across the Santa Barbara Channel to the mainland were mostly routine boat operations, but we tried to finish our business as quickly as possible to avoid having to contend with heavier seas, common in the afternoon. Fog, however, remained one of our continuing concerns. Usually it drifted in like a dingy cloud enveloping the island, but on some occasions, it lay in a thick layer obscuring our view of the ocean while leaving the station in sunshine. Ships’ masts resembled periscopes cruising through a field of gray cotton candy. Boat crews were extra alert during channel crossings on foggy days.
The island resembles a desert mesa poking up from the ocean with vertical sides ranging from 100 to more than 200 feet tall. The top of the island tilts like a badly built table with the lighthouse lens 275 feet above the water. The only way onto the island was to land at our dock in the cove or to come by helicopter. Or so we thought, until we had an unexpected visitor.
One day John Freie, our chief engineer and I were in the bachelor’s quarters eating lunch when John said, “Look at this.”
I stepped to the window and saw a man walking toward us from the west end of the island. He wore no shirt, had a camera strapped around his neck and a Hamm’s beer in one hand – a regular tourist. We went out to greet him, wondering how he got on the island.
“Oh, I landed my airplane a couple of hundred yards down there,” he said, pointing past our radio beacon tower. Of course it created quite a stir for an airplane to land on Anacapa.
Everyone except the watch stander and boat crew walked down to watch him take off in his Piper Super Cub. (His landing on Anacapa was not Coast Guard approved.)
Early one morning, a boater called from our
sound-powered phone on the dock to report a boat wrecked beneath a vertical cliff on the weather side of the island. He saw three men and what looked like pieces of a boat on a narrow strip of beach. We knew from the tide tables they would soon be inundated and an approaching storm added extra urgency.
Boylan opted to use our 16-foot skiff for the beach rescue. In minutes, we had our station boat in the water with the rowboat in tow.
When we spotted the men, one waved vigorously, one sat on an ice chest and the other lay sprawled on the sand. In addition to the men and the ice chest, we saw two outboard motors and various bits of fishing gear strewn across the beach. Parts of a fiberglass boat floated amidst spume at the water’s edge, rising and falling with each wave.
We backed the skiff through the surf and after a quick survey of the men, we saw one wore a cast from his hips to his neck, recovering from a broken back, he said; another had a blue complexion and complained of chest pains. The third man appeared OK, except for being down drunk. Almost as soon as we landed, an argument began over what gear they wanted us to take on the first trip. They chose the ice chest – it had their beer. In view of the rapidly disappearing beach, we opted for the men.
They said they’d left Port Hueneme after the bars closed with the thought of doing some fishing around Anacapa. Before they reached the island, fog settled in the channel then their outboard engine began acting up. One of the men began fiddling with it and soon it stopped running. Instead of lowering the small engine they had for a spare, he began taking parts off it to put on the big outboard. Then he couldn’t start either of them.
When the sun came up they saw the dim outline of Anacapa Island through the fog. By that time they had drifted into a kelp bed close off shore. Instead of tying to the kelp, they began pushing it aside and soon, tidal currents carried them into the surf. The men scrambled to the beach and stood helplessly while waves destroyed their broached craft.
By the time we got back to our dock, increasingly heavy seas made boat operations risky so we hoisted both units from the water. Getting the man with the heart problem up 153 steps to the top of the island turned out to be a slow process, requiring rest stops every few feet. Of course our greatest fear was he might go into cardiac arrest.
As it turned out, we hosted them for two days before the storm gave out. One of the men owned a bar and offered us free drinks if we’d drop in. I’m not aware of any of our crew taking him up on the offer.
While many people turn up their noses at the thought of lighthouse duty, particularly on an offshore island, my tour at Anacapa Light remains one of the highlights of my Coast Guard career.
Larry Boylan died April 2, 1990 and his wife Lois on February 4, 2005. Their son, Jerry, has never ventured far from the sea, or from Anacapa Island. He is captain of the vessel Conception in the Truth Aquatics fleet in Santa Barbara, California. See: truthaquatics.com/jerry.htm
This story appeared in the
July 2005 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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