16 January 2008 | Hope Town, Abacos
Beth - weather clear, sunny, perfect
Tuesday's adventures were top notch: snorkeling in the morning and then a visit to the famous Hope Town Lighthouse in the evening. We got in around 2pm, picked up a vacant red mooring ball owned by Hope Town Marina ($20 per night, water 25 cents per gallon, showers $4.00) and set off to explore. Bruce, our neighbour on Orient Express, told us that his favourite time to visit the lighthouse is at dusk so we poked around the town first and saved that till later.
We had heard that Hope Town is a beautiful place and it is. The harbour is a tiny one and well protected all round. In fact the entry is interesting all by itself. The instructions say to look for the yellow house with the road beside it and steer as if you're going right up that road. Then hang a right (or turn to starboard) into the harbour channel. We came in on a high tide and I'm just as happy we planned it like that. There is lots of water in the harbour but a high tide makes the entry less challenging.
The streets are narrow and winding; the houses are pretty colours with gingerbread trim and flourishing gardens. The picket fences have hearts and stars and pineapples carved into them. One thing we noticed was that most of the homes are rentals. Unlike New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, there don't seem to be a lot of local people living "downtown". We'll have to find out more about this. We found a payphone to call my dad, found the internet café where we'll have a coffee and get connected again on Wed morning (since we didn't lug our computers in with us), checked out the hours for the museum and then paid a visit to Vernon's Grocery Store where we picked up a loaf of whole wheat bread - still warm from the oven - and one of his famous key lime pies. Then it was back to the boat to dig into bread and pie (we have no will power regarding food at all!!)
With stomachs full, we watched the sun get lower in the sky and then set off for the lighthouse. We docked at Lighthouse Marina and followed the path along the shore and up the hill where we found a sign saying "open till 5". We were a bit worried but very soon a young man emerged from the house and, in answer to my question about whether we were too late, said with a smile, "Yes... but you're lucky because I'm going up now and you can come with me!"
The Hope Town Light is a distinctive red and white striped stone building - round, tall (of course) with thick stone walls. It was built in 1863 and is one of only 3 kerosene lights left in the whole world - all of them in the Bahamas. It has a fresnel lens that floats on a pool of mercury and can be seen 17 miles away. Those are the facts as I know them - now let me try to give you the experience.
Jeffery told us that his father kept the light for over 20 years and he started the job 4 years ago. We followed him up the circling stairs - up and up and up - taking peeks through the narrow arched windows at the harbour and the Sea of Abaco as we went. We watched as Jeffery poured alcohol into the burner to warm it before lighting the lamp, and as he took down the drapes that protect the lens from the sun during the day. (The bright sun on the prisms would be a fire hazard.) He allowed us to climb the ladder up to the very top where we stood beside the lens itself. This light has pattern of 5 flashes and then a 5 second interval. I was surprised to see that the interval is created by an open space - where the light shines but not through the lens, instead of being blocked off. Jeffery said every light has its own unique pattern in the lens. After about 10 minutes, he lit the kerosene lamp and wound up the mechanism that keeps the lens turning. He showed us the little mantle that looks just about like the one in our old Coleman lantern that we used to take camping, and told us that they are getting harder to find. The company in England that used to supply them has closed and they have tried out another kind that starts well but doesn't last very long. Wouldn't that be an interesting little niche for someone to fill?
Now here is the thing about this light - it has to be wound every two hours!! That means that every two hours throughout the night, Jeffery or the man who job shares with him, has to climb those steps and wind up the gears again. He said he used to take his turn with his siblings when his dad ran the light too. As we watched him wind it, Jim asked what the other handle was for. He shuddered and said, "That's what I would have to manually wind - all the time - to keep the light revolving if anything happened to the weights!" As we talked, we could see the pride he takes in the work - it is his family tradition, and he laughed when I asked if he would be passing the job on to his children. "I hope so!" was his reply. It was beautiful being up here on a clear and calm evening; Jeffery said it is spooky being there on a wild and stormy night, but that there is no sway in the tower. Part of me would like to experience it then...part of me is happy to leave it to him!
The whole mechanism floats on a pool of mercury for balance and elimination of friction and is supported by a thick post that runs right up through the centre of the tower. We all marveled at the minds that invented the system and the builders who put it together.
We had such a wonderful time being up here for a tiny piece of the real lighthouse work. The Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society is working to keep these lights manned and not turned into automated ones; this is an important piece of history that is an important piece of today too.
We finished the evening on the boat - surrounded by other boats - yes - but knowing that after we explore Hope Town some more, we'll head out to open waters again on Thursday.