“A keeper not only has to be a steady steeple jack on the sides of his lighthouse, but he must also be a good enough boatman to navigate the water that separates him from the mainland.” – Robert Thayer Sterling, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, 1935
Time marches on but the sea never changes. No matter how much technology and advancement have altered the face of lightkeeping – and to be sure the change wrought by progress has been sweeping, society’s insatiable aspirations remain powerless in bringing the sea and storm under its influence.
For the forces of wind, tide and sea will always go unscathed no matter how many dictates of compulsory change are thrust upon our lives. Yet such indomitable resistance is oddly enough the last unblemished links that connect the proud heritage of the bygone lightkeeper with modern day preservationists – or today’s keepers of the lights.
As all involved quickly come to learn, one cannot hope to volunteer at, preserve or share a light station with the public, without first coping with the timeless challenges that play out on the grand expanse of the brine – something especially true for sites disconnected from the mainland.
From general housekeeping and lawn care to complex restoration projects and public access, all activities away from the mainland are subject to that of which is out of our control. Even a bright sunny day is not always able to deliver on the promise of a visit to an offshore lighthouse when the whipping winds have their dander up.
Little River Light Station, which is located at the entrance to Cutler Harbor in Downeast Maine, is one such active preservation project that contends with the vagaries of the sea. The 15-acre island and historic light station is owned by the American Lighthouse Foundation and under the care of its local chapter, Friends of Little River Lighthouse.
Like the keepers of old, Bill Kitchen of the Friends of Little River Lighthouse is witness to the fascinating sway of the sea as he works to facilitate an innovative on-site educational program at the island called, The Lighthouse Endeavor.
But make no mistake about it, despite nature’s alluring beauty, Bill has come to learn of the many moods and dangers of the sea while being the lone inhabitant on Little River Island this winter. In the process, he has developed a keen respect for the forces of wind, tide and sea that must be experienced firsthand to be fully comprehended.
For such power – and the challenges it creates, cannot be adequately described by words but rather is something only understood when the forces manifest themselves in the midst of our daily lives. It is during these moments of uncertainty that the unmistakable ‘language’ of the sea speaks to the mariner through the raw emotions, fears and respect it spawns within him.
In general terms, all seasons of the year bring the same types of challenges on the water, but it’s during winter when the stakes of safety are at their highest – a time when the frozen blast of the gale is always lurking and the seas remain ever-agitated.
Icy water temperatures capable of inducing hypothermia within minutes, limited daylight hours and a seascape generally devoid of much in the way of marine activity – and thus limiting the potential for Good Samaritans to lend a hand in times of trouble, can all add up to a hazardous brew for even the most prudent mariner.
Yet, these risks can never be entirely mitigated, for as the saying goes, “no man is an island.” Winter or summer, there are times when provisions are necessary to replenish and equipment replaced, as well as mail to pick-up, or simply a brief moment of socialization to be enjoyed.
For Bill Kitchen to accomplish these things, it means crossing the open waters of Cutler Harbor, which separate Little River Island from the mainland. During the summer, this 10 to 15 minute boat ride into the charming seaside village of Cutler is a blessing to be savored, but in wintertime, such romance is banished to memory by a heavy dousing of Arctic air.
“So far the conditions have run the full gamut from lake-like flat, no wind, best boat and sunny, to the wind screaming straight out of the west at a sustained clip of 50 knots, with sub-zero temperatures and waves washing clear over the ice-covered floats at the boathouse,” said Bill Kitchen.
“I recall getting into trouble one Sunday afternoon when the wind and seas were just this side of acceptable, that is unless your engine dies halfway across the harbor like it did and the north wind pushes you swiftly towards the rocky and unpopulated side of the harbor. My situation wasn’t helped by the fact that most fishermen had their radios off as they watched the Patriots game that day. Thankfully a local man and his son heard my Mayday and reached me in their skiff with only a few yards to spare.”
During the first four months of The Lighthouse Endeavor program (October 2011 to January 2012), Bill never made a single trip ashore without donning a lifejacket or float coat; however, such lifesaving measures are powerless to ward off the dangerous effects of immersion in a frigid winter sea should the unexpected occur.
Something more was necessary, and that’s where some good old fashioned community teamwork came into play.
The American Lighthouse Foundation approached the Searsport-based Hamilton Marine, which has additional store locations in Portland, Rockland, Southwest Harbor and Jonesport, about the possibility of obtaining a Mustang Survival brand anti-exposure, floatation work suit.
Hamilton Marine is one of those rare companies that are in touch with the coastal communities they serve and are always a pleasure to work with. In business since 1967, Hamilton Marine once again showed their community spirit by working with the American Lighthouse Foundation to supply a Mustang Survival work suit for The Lighthouse Endeavor project at an extremely generous discounted price.
Thanks to Hamilton Marine’s kindness, Bill Kitchen of The Lighthouse Endeavor project at Little River Light Station is now better suited safety-wise for undertaking his winter harbor crossings, which makes everyone involved in this effort extremely happy.
For those not familiar with a Mustang Survival floatation suit, it is designed to protect the wearer from foul weather, and uses closed-cell foam to offer floatation and hypothermia protection in the event of water immersion.
As Bill Kitchen points out, “There are lots of different ways to end up in the icy water, and many of them can happen either before you get in, or after you get out of the boat – it’s not just when you’re underway. Then there are those time when the wharves, floats or wooden rails extending from the boathouse are icy and present a slip hazard.”
“The key is not taking any unnecessary risks, surely, but that doesn’t mean a momentary distraction or bad judgment call – or frankly, an accident, can’t land you in icy waters that I would survive in for only a few minutes without a survival suit. The Mustang Survival suit also means that, if for some emergency, I had to attempt a passage in what would otherwise be less than acceptable conditions, I could.”
Kitchen concluded by saying, “The Mustang Survival Suit provides me, the Friends of Little River Light, the American Lighthouse Foundation, the kind people of Cutler – and in some ways, the thousands of people who are supporting and following The Lighthouse Endeavor from afar, some peace of mind that should something potentially catastrophic happen, I have the best chance possible to make it through. My parents are pretty grateful too. By the way, I fell in love with Mustang’s tag-line years ago as an off-shore sailor…‘We Save Lives for a Living.’ I just hope they never have to save mine.”
“And of course I’m also deeply grateful to Hamilton Marine for being a supporter and sponsor of The Lighthouse Endeavor as well. When companies like this come onboard, along with the tremendous efforts of the American Lighthouse Foundation, it adds credibility to the program and sends a clear message to other companies and organizations that there are many ways to get involved and be supportive.”
Given Bill Kitchen’s talents and enthusiasm, coupled with proven support structure within the organization of the American Lighthouse Foundation, there can be no question that The Lighthouse Endeavor is poised to blaze a new and exciting trail in lighthouse education, but such projects also require dedicated community support as well.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what has occurred over the past four months as local businesses and companies have stepped forward to lend a helping hand – with Hamilton Marine being one of them. Thank you, Hamilton Marine!
To learn more about Hamilton Marine, visit: http://www.hamiltonmarine.com To learn more about the Friends of Little River Lighthouse and The Lighthouse Endeavor project, visit: www.littleriverlight.org
Below is some insight provided by Bill Kitchen on the varied challenges he copes with when planning for a trip ashore…
“The first thing you have to understand is that there are actually quite a few factors in play for a harbor crossing, almost any one of which can render it either undoable, or foolish.
The first one is quite simply the tide. With the greatest tidal swings in the US, (sometimes swinging 18+ ft. four times a day), and a dock and floats that only allow me a couple of hours to come and go either side of high water – and it needing to be daylight, makes for a very narrow window that doesn’t open for days at a time…and when it does it is rarely ideal.
So assuming I’ve got the tide both leaving and returning, and keep in mind it’s an hour round-trip from Cutler to Machias, I then evaluate sea, wind, less important weather, and what boat I’m using, which changes throughout the year. The sea is a deal-breaker too, especially over the winter when I have only a very light StarCraft with an 8 hp engine. A small chop or some low rollers make it a clear no-go.
The third factor that can cancel a much-needed provision run is wind, both its speed and its direction. If it’s coming out of the west, which it does more often than not this time of year, it’s virtually impossible. Rain and snow – and even thick fog, is something one can work around if you really want to. It may just make for a less comfortable passage.”
Bill: As I said before, safety (your self-safety) has to be your primary concern there. You honest-to-God do not have the “luxury” of non-planning,i.e. spontaneity of a sea crossing to and from town. You have learned by now, only too well, how quickly serenity can change to near disaster. I pray for you along with my family because you are living the life we did in the 40’s, with just a very few improvements. Keep on trucking, but do it carefully, every step of the way. Out there, you have to handle yourself, always, as if stepping on black ice.
Your lighthouse buddy, Seamond