Watching Properly in the Face of a November Gale

Watching Properly in the Face of a November Gale
Owls Head Fresnel lens

For over two centuries, Maine lighthouses have sent out their guiding lights to sea (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Sweeping in from the southeast with a sense of unrestrained dynamism, the gale of November 17, 2010 lashed the Maine coast with wind, rain and swells, but its impressive power once again failed to conquer the traditions of light and sound that faithfully oppose it.

As they have for more than two centuries, lighthouses, which serve as a line of defense for mariners against the trepidations and dangers of the tempest, stood strong against the turbulent elements of a well-known foe.

At the height of the storm, I paid one of these warriors of the sea – Owls Head Lighthouse, an early morning visit. The sentinel affords a front row seat to stormy theatre from its commanding position high above West Penobscot Bay, which is as alluring as the lighthouse itself.

With my face tucked-in close against my coat to hide from the rain’s unwanted sting, I took to the staircase that leads up to the stout tower; knowing that with each ascending step, I was also treading higher into the realm of the storm’s most forceful winds.

Owls Head Lighthouse

Owls Head Lighthouse stands sentinel high above West Penobscot Bay (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Southeast gusts of 45-knots, now at my back, pushed me along and turned my stride into a somewhat clumsy endeavor. On more than one occasion, I quickly reached for the stability of the railing to keep from stumbling during my 53-step march.

Stopping for a minute to scan the unsettled landscape once I reached the lighthouse, it became apparent that there were no boats or vessels plying the agitated bay. Presiding over the moment instead was the sound and feel of howling winds rushing by, which carried on its shoulders a heavy dose of fitful rain.

Owls Head Harbor

Powerful winds strained the moorings of lobster boats in Owls Head Harbor during the November 17, 2010 gale (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

In nearby Owls Head Harbor, lobster boats were hunkered down at their moorings, though the wind’s velocity was certainly testing the strength of those moorings as boats bobbed about at the end of taut lines.

Peering through squinting eyes, I marveled at the roll of the swell pushing ever forward in soldier-like sets. The rhythmic surge was seemingly unsatisfied until it beat its fury against the indomitable, rocky coastline of Maine. How many times this ceaseless battle has occurred along the line where land meets sea is anyone’s guess.

Owls Head Light Station's Foghorn

The foghorn at Owls Head was sounding its doleful warning out over the stormy seas of Penobscot Bay (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Suddenly, the riveting sound of the light station’s foghorn, which was bellowing in faithful fashion throughout, stopped me in my tracks. At this point, I focused intently on its doleful drone, soaking up its audible warning that reverberated through the air and thinking to myself how our lightkeeping legacy still remains fundamentally in tact, even if the keepers themselves have faded into history.

The moment of reflection included an upward glance over my shoulder at the tower’s lantern where the warm glow of Owls Head’s fourth order Fresnel lens filled the cupola in voluminous fashion, as only a classical lens can do.

Owls Head Lighthouse

There was no place to hide from the gusty winds at Owls Head Light (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

All the while the gale’s arsenal of elements was too powerful to ignore for very long as an unexpected wind gust buffeted my position with attention-grabbing force. I was immediately thrust back into the reality of the moment, which prompted me to seek a lee around the tower, but the effort was futile.

Not only was the wind all-encompassing around the base of the lighthouse, its sustained strength was relentless. Turning into the face of the wind, I could scarcely walk forward without summoning extra effort to combat the stubborn resistance filling the air.

It was then that I noticed the dramatic impact the wind was having on the rain. Rather than simply blowing the rain into a wild frenzy, the force of the wind was shattering the droplets into sheets of spray.

Owls Head Fresnel lens

The Fresnel lens inside Owls Head Light has been in place since 1856 and cared for by many a lightkeeper (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Before heading back down the stairs to the light station grounds, I quickly thought of the lightkeepers who once tended to the light and fog signal at Owls Head, and endured even greater storms than what I was experiencing on this day.

Though long gone, the names of keepers such as Joseph Maddocks, Charles Franklin Chester, Augustus Hamor, George Woodward, Archford Haskins and Douglas Larabee came to mind. I thought for a second how proud these keepers and others would be to see the same Fresnel lens, which they once polished and cared for, shining bright.

VM-100 fog detector at Owls Head Light

A modern VM-100 fog detector "stands on guard" at Owls Head Lighthouse (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Automation may have removed the dedicated lightkeeper, but thanks to modern day U.S. Coast Guard aids to navigation technicians, lighthouses like Owls Head are still watching properly and continuing with the longstanding traditions associated with keeping a good light for the safety of the seafarer.

That’s when I was reminded that the basic purpose of a lighthouse, which is to guide mariners by light and sound depending on the station, remains unchanged. The human element at the lights is certainly a major loss to our lighthouse heritage, but to mariners tossed about in stormy seas who might not ever meet a lightkeeper, being able to see a light and hear a foghorn was the paramount hope.

On this day, automation or not, the seafarer could rely on the shining light and powerful fog signal of Owls Head Light Station. This was a thought that warmed my heart on an otherwise soggy and damp day.

Fog detector at Owls Head Light Station

Looking into the "eyes" of the fog detector at Owls Head Light Station on 11/17/10 (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

At the bottom of the staircase, I walked over to the fog detector and stared briefly into its “eyes.” Its equipment was sampling atmospheric conditions as it should – a sort of mechanical keeper whose job is to activate the “voice” of the foghorn. All was well.

Turning to leave, I thought about this gale and how it was churning toward the Saint Lawrence River valley and Atlantic Canada. Weather reports stated that Quebec was to receive 6 to 10 inches of snow from the storm.

Ah, snow!

For now, visions of icy crystals transforming coastal Maine into a snow globe would have to wait, but soon enough the season’s annual return will be ushered in – no doubt on the heels of yet another gale that must be lurking just around the corner.

Owls Head Harbor

A sign advertising lobster seemed out of place during the November 17, 2010 gale, for the boats in Owls Head Harbor were hunkered down at their moorings and the wharves quiet (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)