Gay Head Lighthouse will retain familiar sweep for now

The revolving element in the Gay Head Light will remain.
Photo by Steve Myrick

The revolving element in the Gay Head Light will remain.

This week, the Coast Guard announced a change of course for the Gay Head Lighthouse. The sweep of the light’s familiar rotating high-intensity incandescent beacon will remain, at least for the near future.

In April, the Coast Guard said it planned to replace the light’s aging DCB-224 optic, a rotating mechanism that relies on a bank of 1,000-watt incandescent bulbs set behind red and white filters, with modern stationary 80 watt LED bulbs.

Matthew Stuck, United State Coast Guard First District Aids to Navigation program manager, told The Times in April that the change to LED was dictated by factors that included mariner reliability, cost, and the difficulty of finding parts for a mechanism that is more than 40 years old.

News of the change was cause for concern from residents of Aquinnah, the Island’s smallest town, who find reassurance in the nightly sweep of the beam across the landscape and the ocean.

This week, asked what precipitated the change in plans, Mr. Stuck said he didn’t want to “add any pieces to an already moving part.”

He said there is a lot going on with the historic property, including a planned transfer of the structure from the Coast Guard to the town and an effort to save it from toppling over the eroding cliff.

On Wednesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Gay Head Lighthouse to its 2013 list of America’s 11 “Most Endangered Historic Places.” The listing is expected to bolster efforts to save the lighthouse from tumbling into the sea.

Mr. Stuck said the search for a DCB-224 optic never stopped, and after one was recently found in Virginia, plans to switch from a beam to a flashing LED ceased.

“We do these kinds of modernization proposals on historical property a lot,” Mr. Stuck said. “We adapt over time, and LEDs are so power friendly, there are no moving parts, they have a longer life, but we’re sensitive to the importance of our obligation to our historical organizations as we consider these modernizations.”

Mr. Stuck believes modernization will be inevitable at the Gay Head Lighthouse, but since a replacement product was found he didn’t see a reason to not use the rare part.

“Nobody loves our maritime history as much as we do,” Mr. Stuck said with a laugh. “And we’re sensitive about doing what we can to make sure we’re making our history accessible.”

He said there is always pressure to be efficient and good stewards of taxpayer dollars. “It’s a constant balancing act,” he added.

The DCB is essentially two back-to-back drums with a red filter on the end of one drum and a white filter on the other. An electric motor rotates the drums slowly within the lighthouse housing. There are two 1,000 watt bulbs in each drum, a primary light and a backup light

Coast Guard teams visit the lighthouse regularly to provide maintenance and repair. Finding parts has become increasingly difficult. The switch to LED was to have occurred this summer.

Approximately 80 percent of all aids to navigation in the USCG First District now use LED technology — a change made possible by advances in LED technology. It is part of a continuing evolution over the centuries that included the jump from whale oil to kerosene to electric lamps.

Gay Head Light was established in 1799 and consisted of a keeper’s dwelling and an octagonal tower, which guided mariners past Devil’s Bridge, a dangerous rock ledge that extends out to the northwest from the cliffs, and presents a hazard at the west entrance to Vineyard Sound.

First lit with whale oil, then kerosene, it was later outfitted with one of the first Fresnel lenses in the United States. A modern beacon replaced the Fresnal in 1952, and the station was unmanned just four years later. The current DCB replaced that beacon in 1989, according to Mr. Stuck.

The Coast Guard donated the Fresnel lens to the Dukes County Historical Society, now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.