52 Slices
Medium 9780892725854

Fog Signals

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

New England leads the nation in the amount of fog, so New England led the nation with the first fog signal. Fittingly, the first fog signal was mounted by the first lighthouse, which was Boston Light. The fog signal was a gun, mounted there in 1719. The light was first lit in 1716 and the fog cannon came three years afterward, when the third lightkeeper was in charge (the first two having drowned). His name was John Hayes, and in June 1719 he asked the Boston merchants that “a great gun may be placed on the island to answer Ships in a Fogg.”

The cannon was probably taken from defenses on Long Island and moved to Little Brewster Island. The cannon has long since been removed and now serves silently as a monument at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The date engraved on its barrel is 1700.

I am oddly moved by the simple words of Captain John Hayes asking the Boston merchants “for a great gun to answer Ships in a Fogg.” Hayes had long been a mariner himself in the days before there was a light—let alone a fog signal—at Boston Harbor. I feel a kinship with Hayes, who must have often lost his way in dense fog. It is not easy to convey to a landsman the eerie feeling of a mariner totally lost and disoriented in fog. It is not easy for boatmen today, with radar and loran or even more simple radio direction finders, to understand the total sense of disorientation that comes from being lost in thick fog.

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Buoys

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Buoys are kissing cousins to lighthouses. But they are far smaller and there are many times more of them. In this First Coast Guard District, between Boston and the Canadian border, there are nearly three thousand buoys. Some are lighted, some have gongs, some are black, some are red, some have horizontal stripes, some have vertical stripes, some are pointed at the top, some are flat-headed, most are numbered, but some are numberless.

Buoys are road signs for boats, just as traffic lights, curve signs, danger ahead signs, and speed limit signs are for cars. All coastal shipping, from the smallest boat to the largest vessel, relies on buoys. So they must stay on station, doing their duty day and night, year-round, despite all the torments that natural forces of waves and wind heap upon them.

Buoys speak a language to boatmen far more detailed and more informative than landlubbers might guess. By their information, a foreign ship, with no knowledge of the local water, can be guided safely into harbor.

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Portland Lightships

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Once there were 122 lightships in the United States. Today there are none. The era of stalwart lightships is gone forever. Yet the memory, the nostalgia, and the love of lightships live on.

Lightships live in the long memories of old immigrants heading from Europe to a new life in the New World. The first foretaste of their new world was the lightship that signaled they were at long last coming to their American harbor. Lightships live in the memories of mariners, to whom these special marks signaled the safe end of a long voyage. And lightships live in the memories—not always fond ones—of the men who served aboard these bouncing tethered sentinels of our coast.

Portland had a series of four lightships for seventy-two years, from 1903 until 1975, when the last Portland lightship was replaced by an automated, crewless, large navigational buoy.

Portland’s first lightship came on station March 7, 1903, anchored in seabed selected by divers six miles east-southeast of Cape Elizabeth. This lightship, Number 74 in the annals of the Lighthouse Service, was three years late in reporting for duty. This delay was due, first, to delays in the shipyard that built her, the Parkersburg Iron Works in Virginia, and second, because no sooner had she been launched than she went hard aground in the James River.

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Hendricks Head Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Going east past Seguin Light and before The Cuckolds lies Sheepscot Bay, wide mouth of the handsome Sheepscot River. Two miles upriver, with Southport Island on the right, is the light at Hendricks Head. The light is no longer in operation, though it is an excellent daymark.

Hendricks Head Light, which stands out from the sheltered, landlocked Cozy Harbor on Southport Island, six miles from Boothbay, was first built in 1829. It was rebuilt as a square tower in 1875.

In January 1978, a ferocious storm destroyed the boathouse at Hendricks Head Light as well as the walkway that had connected the lighthouse to the fog-bell tower. The next year the tower’s fifth-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic. Ben and Luanne Russell of Alabama bought the 4½-acre property, and completely restored all of the structures. The buildings are in beautiful condition and the fixed white light with red sectors still operates as an active aid to navigation.

Hendricks Head Light, Southport Island on the Sheepscot River. It was first built in 1829 and, though automated in 1975, is no longer operating. Absent are the bell tower and its footbridge connecting it to the main structure. These were demolished by a storm in 1978, but have since been rebuilt by the current owners. Gannett file photo.

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Libby Island Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Keepers at Libby Island Light have endured peril just trying to get on and off their light, the most eastern primary light in U.S. waters at the entrance to Machias Bay.

Early on the morning of June 18, 1918, Samuel Holbrook and Julian Foss, the assistant keeper, were fishing just off Libby Island. A big incoming breaker capsized their skiff and both men were thrown into the sea. Foss clung to the boat. Holbrook, who could not swim, was drowned.

Young Naval reservists, stationed on Libby Island during World War I, saw what had happened, and swam out to help. They rescued Foss, still holding on to the capsized craft. But they found no sign of Holbrook.

The Coast Guard sent out a tender and tried dragging to recover the body. When that failed to find any corpse, they threw dynamite sticks into the ocean, but this also failed to raise the body. Two months later, Holbrook’s body was found, washed ashore many miles to the west at the island of Isle au Haut.

Six years later, in the cold of December 1924, the keeper and his assistant took a small boat to row the five miles to shore to get supplies and mail at Starboard Village. They finished their chores and headed back to the light. They had gone about one mile back when a sudden wave capsized the skiff they were towing. They ran for shelter into the lee of Stones Island.

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