Coast Guard maintenance supervisor Dave Skena says that one of the things that makes inspecting and maintaining lighthouses so interesting is that every lighthouse is different.
Take the lighthouse at Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island — “When we go up the stairs to inspect the light,” said Petty Officer Skena, “cows like to sneak inside; they just seem to like it in there.”
Surprise visits by cows aside, every lighthouse has its own persona, its own set of idiosyncrasies that make it unique. The Coast Guard lighthouse maintenance crew stationed at Joint Base Cape Cod (Otis Air Force Base) is responsible for 20 lighthouses from Provincetown, all around the Cape and Islands, and out to Buzzards Bay. This includes the five lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard: West Chop, East Chop, Edgartown, Cape Poge, and the Gay Head Light. And no two are exactly the same.
On a crisp, clear morning in early December, Senior Chief Jeff Smith and Petty Officer Skena traveled to the Island to take the Times on a tour of the West Chop lighthouse and to tell us about the preventive maintenance the Coast Guard goes through to keep the light running.
“This is one of my favorite lighthouses,” said Petty Officer Skena. “Whenever people visit, I like to show this lighthouse off.” It’s no wonder; it sits out on the bluff at West Chop, providing a panoramic view of Vineyard Haven Harbor, out to Nantucket Sound, across to Nobska Light in Woods Hole and up Vineyard Sound.
The only lighthouse on the Vineyard that is owned and operated by the Coast Guard is at West Chop; the other four lights are owned by private organizations or nonprofits. The Coast Guard has lease arrangements with these other lighthouses, and is responsible for their optics and sound signals. The West Chop Light is also the only one that has a residence at the site. Two Coast Guard families live in the building adjacent to the light, and work out of the Menemsha base.
Each lighthouse is on its own maintenance schedule; typically the Coast Guard will visit West Chop light once a year. By contrast, they try to visit the Gay Head Light about every six months. It just depends on the kind of equipment at each individual lighthouse.
Typically the Coast Guard comes out with a team of three to do the inspection. Senior Chief Smith said, “What’s interesting about the West Chop light is that it has one of the old Fresnel lenses.” It was installed in 1857.
In 1822 Augustine Fresnel produced the most important breakthrough in lighthouse lights in 2,000 years. Fresnel’s beehive-shaped system of lenses and prisms transformed a single oil-burning lamp into a powerful beacon that could be seen 20 miles out to sea.
The Gay Head Light was one of the first American lighthouses to acquire the Fresnel lens, and it guided mariners from 1856 to 1952. That lens has been replaced by a plastic lens, and its Fresnel lens is now owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
The Gay Head Fresnel lens was a first order Fresnel lens (the largest type) — the West Chop light is a 4th order Fresnel lens. “The old Fresel lenses are basically irreplaceable,” said Senior Chief Smith.
When the Coast Guard maintenance crew comes out to do their inspection, they work from the top down. “We’ll start with the lens,” said Petty Officer Skena. “We’ll dust the prisms, and take out any dead bees or insects that might be in there, then we check the DLC [Daylight Controller].” In the case of the West Chop Light, the DLC is a small box facing out of a window just below the light which senses the light and sends a signal to turn it on each night.
Senior Chief Smith said, “We’ll also check the flash controller, which gives each light its unique characteristic and tells the light how many times to flash per minute. The sequence of red, green, and clear is how you know which light is which.” The team replaces the lamps in the flash controller, and they replace the daylight controller each time they visit.
When the crew is done inspecting the lighthouse itself, they go outside to an outbuilding which houses the fog detector and an amplification system which pumps up the horn’s volume. There’s also a CM100 fog detector, which can send out a signal 34 miles, and is set up to activate the foghorn at a range of three miles. When the crew does their yearly inspection, they trick the detector into thinking it’s foggy, and it will go off for about half an hour.
Back in the day the power for the light station was provided by whale oil. But today, the whole light station is run by commercial power. Given the frequent power outages on the Vineyard, one might think this would be risky, but Senior Chief Smith said, “The Coast Guard requires that the power company have 99.5 percent reliability, and so long as that standard is met, they have confidence in the light … after all, normally power is only out for a few hours, and besides, mariners today don’t rely that heavily on the lights — these days they’re mostly for aesthetics.” Senior Chief Smith refers to the fact that most mariners use electronic navigational devices today such as GPS.
In many lighthouses, such as the light at the Cape Cod Canal, there is a mariner-activated system. If mariners want to know where a light is located, they turn their VHF radio on to 83 ALPHA, click on the phone five times, and that activates the foghorn.
The actual foghorn for the West Chop station is located down where the lawn meets the ocean. The horn is three feet tall by 17 inches, and most of it is encased in a concrete blockhouse. On either side of the concrete block are large steel baffles. The baffles are intended to keep the sound of the horn from spilling out to the left and right and aggravating the neighbors — at least as much as possible.
“Make no mistake,” said Petty Officer Skena, “this thing can be loud, really loud.” He tells of how he and his crew once approached the lighthouse from the ocean and pulled their boat up right out in front of the horn. “We had to time it so that we ran up the hill to the lighthouse when the horn wasn’t blowing. There’s no way you could be right in front of that thing when it went off.”
The challenges of being a keeper of the light. At least the cows don’t make that much noise.