One of the most important aids to the sailor other than the equipment on his boat is a lighthouse. Partly because lighthouses help keep us safe, we grow fond of them. Like most boats, each is unique with its own personality. But our affection for lighthouses goes far beyond that.
Each one is our life saver, warning us of danger, our mothers away from home. They are stately and attractive, often in a romantic setting which makes them even more appealing. But overall, they are our friends and we love to climb them.
Cruising with our wonderful friends Doc and Renee Gholz on their Alberg 35, we sailed from New Orleans to Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas. The Loggerhead Lighthouse, built in 1858, is 151-feet tall, has a first-order Fresnel lens and is dressed in a reverse tuxedo. We admired this imposing sentinel but did not climb its 194 steps because we wanted to reserve our climbing legs for another.
About four miles east of Loggerhead Key is Garden Key where work on Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fortification in the Western World, began in 1846 and continued for thirty years. Fort Jefferson is famous because of Dr. Mudd who was imprisoned after treating Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, for a broken leg.
The first Key West Lighthouse was built in 1825 but destroyed in a hurricane in 1846. Another replacement was retired 121 years later including its 83 year-old keeper, Mary Bethel. But the light did not die. The Key West Art and Historical Society restored it in 1989 and we could climb its 88 steps and see its third-order Fresnel lens.
The lighthouse on Stirrup Cay in the Berry islands, a chain of small keys northwest of Nassau in the Bahamas, is our favorite. Not more than 75-feet high with only 85 steps, it is important since it is the herald for the turn south to Nassau. When we last visited it in 1971, it was not electrified but efficiently run on kerosene. Like many in the Bahamas in those days, the light turned by a mechanism similar to that of a grandfather clock with weights up to 500 pounds.
Every hour and 20 minutes, the light keepers must crank the weights up again throughout the night. During the day they keep the lighthouse and its grounds immaculate. All the brass in the light house is shined, including the bubble gum which stopped a leak on one of the brass tubes leading from a tank of kerosene.
One of the most attractive lighthouses in the Bahamas is at Hopetown on Elbow Key south of Nassau. Its red and white, candy-striped attire appeals to all sailors who, like us, could not resist climbing it. However, its nearly 200 steps practically did us all in, once we reached the top.
Today many of these lovely old structures are being replaced by the far more economical light towers which have no history or visual appeal. Hopefully, like some of the magnificent old wooden sailing yachts of the early nineties which are being restored, these old lighthouses will also be appreciated for their historical and aesthetic value and not allowed to disintegrate.
Three toots for the old gals!