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Seeking the light: Taking a lighthouse ‘Super Cruise’

DON BINDLER PHOTO Bug Lighthouse on the night of the "Super Moon" in December 2015
DON BINDLER PHOTO Bug Lighthouse on the night of the “Super Moon” in December 2015

There is perhaps no symbol more synonymous with Long Island and New England maritime history than that of the lighthouse.

Today it’s largely GPS and satellites that warn sailors of dangers ahead, but these beautiful beacons are a connection to our nautical past and are still commonly used as reference points.

So it’s no surprise that the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation’s annual lighthouse “Super Cruise” drew about 200 pharologists — students of lighthouses — one day last week. They boarded the Jessica W, a 530-passenger Incat wave-piercing catamaran on loan from Cross Sound Ferry, to take in the sights of more than a dozen onshore and offshore lighthouses.

The multi-state event is sponsored by East End Seaport Museum and is a major fundraiser for the nonprofit.

With clear skies and gentle waves, it took less than five hours for the Jessica W, traveling at 35 knots, to make it from Greenport’s Mitchell Park to Watch Hill, Rhode Island and back. Passengers shuttled from port to starboard to snap photos as the vessel sailed past the stately historic structures, as well as seaside mansions (one reportedly owned by pop star Taylor Swift) and the ruins of Fort Tyler.

They were also treated to rich tidbits of local history.

According to Greenport resident Bob Allen, a descendant of lighthouse keepers and one of the tour’s narrators, starting salary for a lighthouse keeper in 1890 was $200 per year, wages that were supplemented by unlimited access to clams, oysters, scallops, lobsters and more.
“Lighthouse keepers never starved,” Mr. Allen said.

First up on the tour was Long Beach Bar “Bug” Lighthouse, the replica Victorian-style building located south of Orient and maintained by the seaport museum, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. Mr. Allen’s great-grandfather, William H. Follett, was the lighthouse’s last lightkeeper, a position he held until he turned 70 in 1940. The lighthouse was decommissioned about six years later, Mr. Allen said.

Occasionally, Mr. Allen said someone will drop him on the small island so he can perform maintenance and routine repairs. Then, likely channeling his ancestors, he’ll set up a chair, watch the traffic in the harbor and enjoy the quiet.

A favorite on the tour was Race Rock Light, a 19th century gothic revival-style structure located on “The Race,” a treacherous spot where Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. Completed in 1878, the granite lighthouse features keeper’s quarters and a light tower rising 67 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

“For me, it just looks like what a lighthouse should look like,” said Ted Webb, an East End Seaport Museum past president and a tour narrator.
And then there is the 108-year-old New London Ledge Light, at the mouth of the Thames River near New London, Connecticut, which Mr. Webb said is haunted by a past lighthouse keeper named Ernie.

North Dumpling Lighthouse on North Dumpling Island off Fishers Island was purchased by inventor Dean Kamen in the late 1980s for a reported $2.5 million. At one point, Mr. Kamen even declared North Dumpling a nation unto itself, according to several media reports, apparently signing a non-aggression pact with former President George H.W. Bush.

For many, lighthouses are a reminder of a time free of the distractions of the digital world. They’re also alluring for anyone who has dreamed of a life of solitude, but one that also serves a role helping others.

Sandy Talbot, a retired nurse from Bohemia, recalled days spent at her family’s summer home on Sexton Island, a tiny spit of land in Great South Bay with views of Fire Island Lighthouse. For her the attraction to lighthouses is obvious — it takes her back to a simpler time.

“Every summer we used to go there from the day school ended to the day after Labor Day,” she said. “My favorite thing was to draw pictures of the Fire Island lighthouse on paper plates, because we didn’t have arts and crafts paper … I love going to see lighthouses.”