STERNLINES

‘send a gleam across the wave.’

Yachts International - - Contents - By DuD­Ley Daw­son

LIGHTHOUSES: STEEPLES OF THE SEA

Just off the coast of my adopted home state of North Carolina, the Gulf Stream, mov­ing warm wa­ter north­ward, meets the Labrador Cur­rent, bring­ing cold wa­ter south. Ex­cel­lent fish­ing is one re­sult, but the other is a treach­er­ous stretch of sea that has claimed so many ships and souls it is nick­named “The Grave­yard of the At­lantic.”

It is along this sto­ried shore that the candy-striped Cape Hat­teras Lighthouse has stood since 1870. At about 200 feet, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and the sec­ond-tallest in the world. It re­placed a shorter tower that was com­pleted in 1802 but later deemed in­ad­e­quate.

As storm af­ter storm ate away at the Carolina coast­line, the beaches and dunes pro­tect­ing the lighthouse grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared un­til the bea­con, in peril of col­lapse, was aban­doned in 1935. What the sea takes away, though, it some­times gives back, and years of sand ac­cre­tion put the struc­ture a hun­dred yards in­land again by the time it was re­ac­ti­vated dur­ing World War II. It stood safely for an­other 50 years un­til the sea re­peated its cy­cle and once again threat­ened to un­der­mine the light’s foun­da­tion.

This time, though, the pub­lic would not coun­te­nance the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing its beloved land­mark to the el­e­ments. Pe­ti­tions were signed, do­na­tions were raised and funds were al­lo­cated, lead­ing to “the move of the mil­len­nium” in 1999. The 5,000-ton struc­ture was jacked up, loaded onto a trailer and moved nearly 1,000 yards in­land to the lo­ca­tion where it stands to­day.

There’s some­thing mag­i­cal about lighthouses, some­thing that cap­tures the at­ten­tion, even de­vo­tion, of many peo­ple. For 19th-cen­tury French physi­cist Au­gustin-Jean Fres­nel, it was the op­ti­cal chal­lenge of de­sign­ing a lens to make the faint flame of an oil lamp vis­i­ble for miles out to sea. Early light­keep­ers of­ten en­dured months of iso­la­tion, even risk of death, to keep the flame burn­ing through hur­ri­canes and harsh win­ters.

For land­lub­bers to­day, lighthouses of­ten are mere tourist at­trac­tions. For mariners, though, a lighthouse is more. Even in an era when so­phis­ti­cated elec­tron­ics are sup­plant­ing tra­di­tional aids to nav­i­ga­tion, lighthouses con­tinue to pro­vide com­fort and as­sur­ance, par­tic­u­larly to those in dis­tress. The bea­cons seem to ful­fill a deeper, more spir­i­tual role as well, and the more cre­ative among us some­times look to them as a muse, feel­ing in­spired to cel­e­brate them in story and song.

Each De­cem­ber, I look for­ward to re­ceiv­ing a Christ­mas let­ter from Mark Fitzger­ald, a tal­ented yacht de­signer (www.mark­fitz­ma­rine.com) and a bit of a philoso­pher, too. Mark lives on a stretch of the Maine coast where lighthouses and vil­lage churches are al­most as abun­dant as lob­sters. One of his mes­sages, deal­ing with spir­i­tual par­al­lels be­tween church steeples and lighthouses, has stuck with me for 20 years. In 1998, he wrote, “a church steeple is to the land what a lighthouse is to the sea, lead­ing weary trav­el­ers away from haz­ard and safely to port.” His ob­ser­va­tion echoes that of Philip Bliss, a 19th-cen­tury hymn writer who used a lighthouse as a metaphor for salvation: “Brightly beams our Fa­ther’s mercy/From His lighthouse ev­er­more…Send a gleam across the wave/Some poor faint­ing, strug­gling sea­man/ You may res­cue, you may save.”

It’s no co­in­ci­dence, I think, that the mar­itime terms sal­vage and salvor, and the word salvation—both tem­po­ral and eter­nal—all come from the same Latin root word mean­ing “preser­va­tion or de­liv­er­ance from harm, ruin or loss.” Per­haps it is that hope, al­ways promised and so of­ten ful­filled, cre­ates a spe­cial place on our hearts for these tow­er­ing steeples of the shore.

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