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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Lighthouses: Wreckers of Wracking, Saviors of Sailors

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Wayne enters Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
If there’s only one image to show of picturesque, well-heeled Hope Town in Abacos, BAHAMAS it’s tough to beat their iconic, sprightly candy-cane colored Elbow Reef Lighthouse.  Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the lighthouse’s history is even more colorful that its appearance.

In their heyday, would you believe lighthouses decimated the largest business at the time in the BAHAMAS?

Hannah Solo and Neal Aberle’s Lighthouse article, with quotations of their interview with David Gale of the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society (click here to access their Lighthouse article) tells the tale….

Avarice on the High Seas in the 1800s
“Merchant sail flourished between 1820 and 1880 and the Bahama Islands lay spread-out along its way. Many Abaconians made a good living from salvaging (then known as 'wracking') the unfortunate ships that ended their sailing days on the dangerous shoals of this low archipelago of reefs, rocks, cays and white beaches. Navigation aids were no friends of the 'wrackers.'”

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Walking to Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Hope Town. Abacos, BAHAMAS.
"The Bahamian wracking fleet stood ready to help, with almost 300 vessels licensed to cruise the reefs in search of luckless ships to salvage, employing half of the able-bodied men in the country and accounting for about half of this British colony's revenue. The records for 1860 show an amazing average of one wreck per month at Abaco alone.’

"Wracking was a lucrative business. The system required that the salvaged cargo, considered to be imported goods, be shipped to Nassau for auction with the government taking 15%, the agents 15% and 40 to 60% going back to the wrackers. The ship owners received the 10 - 30% that was left, which doesn't' seem like much, but had it not been for the wrackers and the system they would have received nothing.”

While operating well within the law and even amply supporting the treasury, Wrackers strike me as legally sanctioned pirates.

The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.Bern Williams (wiki’s Pirate proverbs)

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Steepening stairs at Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
“[Despite that] England decided in 1863 to build a lighthouse at Hope Town to warn ships away from the extensive Elbow Reef, thus the original and correct name for the lighthouse is the Elbow Reef Lighthouse. Today many people erroneously refer to the light as the Hope Town Lighthouse, but it was built to send sailors away from Hope Town, not to guide them in.  An inspector from the Imperial Lighthouse Service remarked that it was the right place to build a lighthouse for he could see six wrecks on the reef. “

Locals Protest the Lighthouse
“However, local hostility overflowed for this was right where the wrecking was best ­-- at Hope Town's front door.”

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Classic chambered nautilus effect gazing up at
Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouseJapanese proverb

"In order to build the Elbow Reef Lightstation, the Imperial Lighthouse Service, Trinity House, London, brought in some outside help but also employed many Hope Towners to unload supplies, quarry the limestone rock for building foundations and cisterns, to mix the cement and carry out the myriads of other chores can are a part of a construction job of such magnitude. The locals were glad for the jobs but at the same time they wished that they were not building a lighthouse. There were reports by the supervisors that some locals sank a supply barge one night and also withheld fresh water from the workers.”

Despite the protests, the lighthouse was completed in 1864.

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Best view in the Abacos from Elbow Reef Lighthouse. 
Let There Be Light
Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Anne Lamott

The original lens cast a fixed, unflashing beam (according to Visit Hopetown’s website – click here for that).

In 1936 when the Gun Cay lighthouse (south of Bimini) was decommissioned, its iron lantern room with its dome, petroleum burner equipment, turning mechanism, and the rotating Fresnel lenticular panels were installed in the Elbow Reef Lighthouse.  The new beacon provided easier identification by ships in the Hopetown area, visible as far as 15 nautical miles at sea.

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Inside and outside views collide
at Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Like the BAHAMAS Great Inagua Lighthouse (click here for my post on that), these lighthouses are the three remaining hand-wound kerosene–burning lighthouses in the world (according to David Gale -- click here for his Hopetown Lighthouse History post); the third is on BAHAMAS San Salvador, which we wanted to visit, but the prevailing winds made other plans for us. 

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Elbow Reef Lighthouse mechanism
“Every two hours the keeper on duty has to wind, to the top of the tower, seven hundred pounds of weight by means of a hand winch. The descending weights, through a series of bronze gears, rotate the four-ton apparatus once around every 15 seconds -- and very smoothly, at that,” explains Gale.

Today, the Elbow Reef Lighthouse is still sending out light, rated at 325,000 candlepower.

cruising destinations, hiking
The balcony netting up high
at Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Heckuva View! Best in the Abacos
History aside, it’s well worth climbing the increasingly steep set of 100+ stairs to enjoy the best viewpoint in the Abacos.  Even non-gearheads like me are captivated by the sheer beauty of the eFresnel lenses and attendant mechanisms. 

The lighthouse is open daily, and free.  If you’d like to help support the cost of preserving this treasure, donations are accepted at the lighthouse or you can click here to contact the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society.

pearson 365 ketch sailboat
Our sailboat, anchored
below Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Location, Location

We are currently working over hurricane season in Jacksonville FL; this time with our boat “on the hard” in Green Cove Springs, until just before we leave in November, bound for the South Pacific via the Panama Canal.  There’s still lots of retrospectives coming up, plus how we’ll plan for long ocean passages.