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March 11, 2003
The Adventure of the Lighthouse (Guest Appearance By Bill McNeely)

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 climb.

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 song.

"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.

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