March 11, 2003
The Adventure of the Lighthouse (Guest Appearance By Bill
We were anchored in the main cove at Isla
Culebrita, a smaller, undeveloped island just northeast of
Culebra. A week ago, Force Five had been anchored here, the
only boat in a magnificent harbor with clear water, a long,
white, sandy beach, great protection, and fabulous snorkeling.
Now, there were seven other boats here. Second Kiss was one
of them, and they didn't really count, but those two sportfishers
with the boomboxes and Wave Runners were a definite problem.
The sportfishers left around sundown, leaving
just us sailors to enjoy the quiet evening. We'd done a little
exploring by dinghy that day, and found the water pleasant
and the scenery unique. But one feature fascinated me. Culebrita
rose to a peak of over 1,000 feet, and up there was an old,
castle-like, brick lighthouse. The cruising guide said there
was a trail that led up to it, and the view was worth the
Over a glass of wine after dinner, I was
again asked, "What would you like to do? It's your vacation.
Although you slipped into cruising mode very fast. Most people
are just coming to understand what's going on when it's time
to leave. What should we do?"
I looked up to the top of the peak. The
lighthouse is now completely automated, but its white beam
flashed bright every 8 seconds. "I'd like to climb up
to the lighthouse," I responded confidently. "Climb
to the top of the island tonight, sit beneath the cashew tree
" I began to sing gently, quoting a Jimmy Buffett
"Can you do it? Is there anything there?"
"Cruising guide says so, and says it's
not to be missed. Bruce wouldn't lie, would he?" I asked,
invoking the infamous name of the guide's author.
Curt laughed. "Then tomorrow - when
we're ready - no rush when you're cruising - we take the dinghy
to the beach, show you the cove on the other side - you'll
be amazed at how rough it is compared to this, facing the
weather - and then up to the lighthouse." Allie smiled.
We had actually made a plan, but it had taken a bottle of
wine to do it, and we needed another. The half-case I'd carried
with me was beginning to look way too small.
The next morning we told John and Diana
on Second Kiss about our plan by radio. They were not about
to miss such a trek, and late morning two dinks were being
hauled up the sand of the beach and tied off. We warmed up
with a short walk across the island's isthmus to the roiling
waves sloshing and pounding the weather side. A gorgeous cove,
but with the temperament of a cement mixer in high gear. Part
of a wrecked boat made a convenient bench on the beach.
As we headed the hundred or so yards back
to our cove, a small trail branched off toward the peak. It
was the only trail we could find, so we followed it. Hardly
well-worn, it led us through patches of very prickly plants.
Like many Caribbean islands which peak below 3,000 feet, Culebrita
was arid. Desert succulents owned its hillsides, and they
were well supplied with barbs, spines, and thorns which they
were determined to inflict on us. We climbed on through the
brush, gradually rising as the trail went around the hill,
sunny and shadeless, but with a stronger breeze from the easterly
trades as we got higher.
And as we got higher, the views became stunning.
Culebrita commanded prospects of several key, open navigation
channels in this reef-choked region just east of Puerto Rico.
We could see our own boats at anchor, and the wave-rocked
weather sides of the island, and a lot of other islands. The
blues and greens of the Caribbean surrounding the white sand
beaches and rust-colored reefs were dazzling. Isn't this what
everyone comes to see?
We began to spiral around the peak, and
suddenly we arrived at the old lighthouse. Part of the original
cupola top lay on the ground, 15 yards of so from the building,
where a hurricane had placed it a decade or so ago. The brick
and concrete building itself was deserted, but there was a
doorway on the ground floor, and we all peeked in at a steel
spiral staircase that appeared strong enough to support us
and climbed through some rubble. We could not resist.
The stairs spiraled up closely, through
one floor, and finally to an exit at the base of the tower
that held the light itself, which stuck up another floor or
so above the main building's roof. The roof, made of metal
originally, was now old, rusted, porous and weathered, and
in many places clearly unreliable. The tower in its middle
was like a rook stolen from a giant red brick chess set. It
was hard to imagine a lighthouse keeper living here, but at
one time one must have. The building itself was big enough
for living quarters. The Coast Guard had "repaired"
the station in the early 1980's, and had left ample evidence
of their presence. At that time the light would have become
automated, and there would no longer have been a keeper living
here to enjoy these views every day.
What views they were, in every direction!
To the north, the Atlantic, dotted with a few islets and reefs
surrounding them. West rose the near hills of Culebra, and behind
them the high, green mass of the first of the Greater Antilles,
Puerto Rico, and its tallest peak, El Yunque. To the south,
the long, lower stretch of Vieques, the largest of the Spanish
Virgins and about a quarter again the size of Catalina. And
east, twenty miles off, was the west end of St. Thomas, so clear
and seeming so close you could pick out individual houses. Lighthouse
Hill overlooked the open water passages among all these islands,
and the impassable reefs and shoals within them. A sailor who
knew his bearing on this light could navigate these waters at
night, an unthinkable impossibility for an amateur like me.
The place was so majestically beautiful
that none of us wanted to be the one who decided it was time
to leave. But that time came, and we followed the prickly,
thorny path back to the beach, and launched our dinghies through
the surf. That night, after dinner, over some delicious (and
very cheap) Venezuelan amber rum, I looked up at the sky,
and saw the Big Dipper pointing to the pole star, not even
20 degrees above the horizon here in the tropics. And I watched
the steady flash of the Culebrita light from up on its peak,
and knew that it was the better guide of the two here.