Today’s sea kayaking and summer vacation topic is lighthouses and their value to sea kayakers, not only as signaling devices at night and in fog, but as daytime landmarks and tools for learning how to read nautical charts with an eye for detail.
The minor 20th-century American poet Ira Sadoff wrote that “as a symbol of loneliness, a lighthouse has its limits”, but it’s the element of aloneness that many associate with lighthouses: remoteness, solitude, an overlook on bad weather and, until the mid-1900’s in North America at least, a family living on an island or a scrap of ledge tending to a revolving beacon.
For sea kayakers, lighthouses have a variety of uses and values. The most obvious is their value as nighttime landmarking signals. Paddling at night, or trying to feel our way down a remote coastline in fog when the lighthouse’s foghorn is emitting its low call, lighthouses let us know where we’re near.
As a practical matter, seeing that few kayakers paddle night, and that most tend to head for shore at dusk and when the fog rolls in, it’s valuable to learn how lighthouses are represented on charts. They’re encoded according to their heights, flash patterns and range, and these details are of value to kayakers for a host of reasons.
Let’s take a look at a lighthouse in person, or in the light of day, as it were: Gurnet Light, perched the sandy bluff of terminal glacial moraine on the northern shores of Plymouth Bay, in Massachusetts. Gurnet Light squats on the end of this lengthy and spare barrier beach on the southeast coast of maritime New England.
Built in 1862, the light’s been moved a couple of times since, from one area of the scarp which forms the end of this spit barrier beach’s southwestern shore. As recently as 1999, a concrete submarine watchtower, a remnant of WW II also stood here. This scarp and cliffs are periodically undermined by the winter storms and nor’east gales New England is known for, and often collapses. Erosion is a constant problem. The lighthouse has been moved back from the eroding cliffs.
Like nearly every lighthouse in North America, Gurnet Light is no longer manned, although the keeper’s house still stands. The light is powered by an array of solar panels. The short and stubby lighthouse, built from wooden clapboards, has a catwalk around the lens housing. Off to one side an electronic eye flashes a signal at land to measure the dew point and range of visibility.
Once range of visibility is reduced to a half mile by fog, rain, snow or darkness, the light (and during high dew points the fog horn) is activated.
Let’s take a look at the light’s salient use to local sea kayakers, a value which comes not so much for the light’s being illuminated at night or in times of limited visibility, but rather, the light’s value as a daytime landmark and how the light is depicted on a nautical chart.
The chart tells us the light’s flash pattern, height, range of visibility, and perhaps most important, indicated that around the northeast corner of the lighthouse bluff, lies a patch of beach protected from the south and west.
Just as important, chart show us that, around the northwest corner of the light lies a small pocket a good for landing, fully protected from ocean swell, seas and whatever surf are being kicked up heavy weather to the southeast, east, or northeast. In short, the lighthouse is our best landmark along this stretch of coast for protection from heavy weather — the shallows it marks are not of concern to us, as a kayak doesn’t shoal. But the sandy coves it lies near can be if not a lifesaver then a trip saver.