Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2021

Dateline 1984: Life on the Nubble

By Debra Baldwin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Nubble Light all lit up for Christmas. During the ...

In 1984, U.S. Coastguardsman Robert French and his wife, Cathy, began their two years stationed at Cape Neddick Lighthouse, also known as Nubble Light, located in York, Maine. In a recent interview, they shared many memories and stories of their time there.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Robert “Bob” and Cathy French were interviewed as ...

Bob French entered the Coast Guard in 1974 at age 18 and was assigned to various watercraft and Coast Guard search and rescue units in Maine, Massachusetts and New York before coming to Nubble Light. He and Cathy, both Maine natives, had been married about four years when they moved offshore to live at the famous lighthouse, a favorite among tourists because of its scenic and easily accessible location barely over an hour north of Boston.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
In 1985, a college student showed up at the Cape ...

The first time they went out to the light together was to visit keeper John Terry to see if they liked the place or not. John sent a ladder over in the three-foot bucket suspended by the overhead cable and told them to “Get in.” The Frenches figured that was a normal thing, so dutifully followed the instruction. Cathy went over first, then Bob.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Cape Neddick Light Station, more commonly known ...
Photo by: James Utter

They learned shortly thereafter that they should never have done that. In fact, it was due to a famous photo from 1967 showing a keeper’s son, seven-year-old Ricky Winchester, being hoisted off to school in the bucket, that the Coast Guard recommended that no one with children over four years old should be stationed at the Nubble Light. But apparently, the unique ride over didn’t deter the Frenches and they took the assignment.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Artistic 1985 student essay photo looking up the ...

The 100-foot channel that separates the Nubble from shore could be a treacherous crossing at times. When the Frenches first arrived during July of 1984, the group commander in Portland told them emphatically to keep three to four weeks of food on hand. Cathy didn’t take him too seriously and ignored the warning to stock up.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
1985 college student essay photo of Cape Neddick ...

A few months later in October, they had several days of bad weather and could not take the 12-foot rubber Avon boat to shore since they had to land directly on the rocks and it would have been too dangerous in the rough water. They began to run very low on food but because they were new to the area, they didn’t know anyone in town to ask to send supplies over in the bucket, though they considered just using the phone book to call people at random to beg for help.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
1985 student essay photo taken from the lantern ...

Cathy was scared to notify the group commander of their situation and admit that she hadn’t listened to him about keeping the extra food on hand. But then the weather cleared up, so she thought they could make it to shore. She talked Bob into trying to take her over on a sunny day even though the waves were still rough and high.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
In the far left of this photo you will notice the ...

They got about halfway there and she was terrified at being tossed about and started screaming, “We’re gunna die! We’re gunna die!” and Bob was yelling back, “You’re the one who wanted to do this… I’m never taking you off the island again!” They continued their “choice conversation,” within earshot of all the tourists onshore and eventually gave up and turned back.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Bob and Cathy French sold their house this past ...

When the water finally calmed down all the way, they made it to shore and got the food they needed and then truly stocked up. From that point on, Cathy never ran short again–she even froze milk. Her experience had a lasting impact on her future shopping routine and even now, she admits she has problems in keeping her overstock under control when she runs out of space to store it all.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
1985 college student essay photo showing the ...

During the summers, Cathy worked over at the Whispering Sands gift shop on shore and always kept a set of spare clothes at the store in case she got drenched making the trip over. The Frenches remembered that they would call shop owner Bill Thomson at times to send them over ice cream and milk in the bucket when they couldn’t get to shore because of inclement weather.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Before being acquired by Phillip Morris in 1986, ...

Regarding the living conditions, the Frenches recounted how fresh water storage was a problem sometimes. They would wake up in the mornings and wonder if they would have enough to brush their teeth that day or have to wait until after it rained so they would have collected enough in the cistern.

The Frenches remembered spending many days scraping the 107 years of paint layers off all the woodwork in the lighthouse. They speculate that all that exposure to old paint might catch up with them one day since they weren’t wearing masks at the time and the paint probably had asbestos in it. But who knew back then what that could do to you? At one point, Bob tried to drill a hole through the keeper’s house wall to put a TV antenna wire through it, but found out that the walls were brick-filled between the wood framing. It was built to last!

As for hobbies, Bob took up photography and dart playing. They had a dartboard hanging in the dining room. Cathy did crochet and cross-stitch. They also liked to collect sea glass. They filled a lamp base with some of it. Bob gave away 45 pounds of Nubble sea glass they had collected back in 1985 to their friends during their recent move this past year.

They had two cats with them at the lighthouse and also had inherited the station dog, “Red,” from the previous keeper who had rescued him from a pound. When the Frenches left the Nubble in 1986, they took Red with them because the next keeper’s wife was allergic to dogs. They kept him for about a year, but eventually gave him away to a friend due to their work schedules.

Other than doing regular maintenance and some repair work, the workload at the Nubble wasn’t very demanding. Bob was basically a “house husband” who stayed home and kept the place looking nice for the tourists by mowing the lawn.

They looked forward to calling in the weather every four hours to the Portsmouth Search and Rescue base in New Hampshire just to be able to speak to people who weren’t family. They could leave for the short time in between the reports, for example, to go shopping in town or do errands. Usually, Bob would row Cathy over and drop her off on shore.

There were always the tourists about and Cathy didn’t mind talking to them so long as they would help carry groceries over to the bucket, so she told them they had to “walk and talk.” One time, however, when she came back from shopping, she had left some grocery bags on the rocks while loading the bucket with some more. The seagulls came and starting eating the bread right out of her sacks. There were tourists standing there and instead of shooing the birds away, they just started taking pictures of them eating Bob and Cathy’s food. It made Cathy “testy” for a while to think that those people just let the birds eat the French’s food stocks just so they could have photos of it.

Another time, Bob and Cathy were sitting in the house and someone knocked at door. It “scared the crap” out of them. It turned out to be some drunk guy who swam over. Bob made him put on a life jacket and swim back because the last thing he needed was to have people think he was going to row tourists back and forth. It was bad enough that he had to stand guard at the new and full moon tides to keep people from walking across while the water was out. 

With no other assistant on the island, Cathy had to learn how to do everything as a backup, like how to start the generator and change bulbs if necessary in case Bob was gone for any reason. They were never off the island together for more than four hours, however, and she never stayed there overnight alone.

The Frenches were there during Hurricane Gloria in 1985. There was a bad storm for several days, but nothing exceptional happened to them during it. In fact, some family members had tried to come over for a visit right beforehand. Coast Guard protocol was to have the keeper’s wife go ashore during any hurricane and a temporary assistant would come out just for the duration of the storm.

Group Portland called up 12 hours before Hurricane Gloria was due to arrive to ask if the assistant had made it out there yet, but when they heard that family members were there, they were alarmed at the thought of having civilians be on the Nubble during a severe storm, so they made Bob row the family back to shore immediately. However, the helper never arrived, so Cathy was allowed to stay at the lighthouse during the hurricane. It was weeks before they could get off the island again.

Cathy did remember at least once doing dishes and having waves break over the kitchen window of the house. She thinks her biggest claim to fame was the erection of the white picket fence. It used to be chain link but the Coast Guard decided to take it down. Cathy complained that her young nieces and nephews would be visiting and it would be too dangerous, so they put up the white picket fence instead. Cathy and Bob stained the fence white so they wouldn’t have to continually paint it.

Regarding the annual Christmas light tradition, the lights were left up year-round because Bob was not allowed to get up on any ladder per regulations. That was because he was the only keeper there and if he were to injure himself falling from a ladder, there would be no one to help him except Cathy. He noted that was a common regulation for all keepers at single family stations during those years.

So, when the lights needed maintenance or replacement, volunteers or the York Beach Fire Department came out to change them. He remembers one time when they did that during his tenure there.

In December of both years the Frenches were at Cape Neddick Light, the Flying Santa came to drop some packages by helicopter. Bob was disappointed it wasn’t by biplane. The packages they got contained handwritten cards by school kids in Boston and things like razor blades and candy.

In 1983, prior to the Frenches’ arrival, Maxwell House came to the Nubble to film an ad for their coffee that appeared both in magazines and as a TV commercial. While the exterior of the lighthouse was featured prominently, the interior shots and the elderly lighthouse couple were total fabrication as well as the implication that the children running along the rocks belonged at the lighthouse.

Tourists visiting later when the Frenches were there would frequently refer to the ads, and thinking they were real, ask Bob if his Grandpa was out in the lighthouse. While Bob usually just set the record straight telling them the ad was a fake portrayal, prior keeper John Terry, who was there for the filming, used to get tired of explaining and just said, “Yes, Grandpa’s in there having a cup of coffee right now!”

It was ironic however, that in the TV commercial, the young man says he is shooting photos for his book. Bob and Cathy did have a young man come out to shoot photos for a college photo essay project. The young man later contacted Bob and sent him copies of the photos, which are accompanying this article. Unfortunately, Bob couldn’t recall his name and the letter that went with the photos wasn’t saved.

After serving at the Nubble for his two years, Bob French then transferred down to a Navy Fleet training unit in Chesapeake, Virginia, to play wargames on the East Coast and Great Lakes with the Coast Guard cutters. From there, he went to Philadelphia to serve on the 157-foot cutter Red Oak, and then on to the cutter Red Cedar on the Chesapeake out of Portsmouth, VA. He retired after close to 22 years’ service in 1995 as a BMC E7. Bob chose retirement at the time because they wanted his next posting to be a “floating cop” doing drug interdiction in Miami, but he had no interest in that assignment, so decided he was done. He always liked his Search and Rescue duty the best.

Unlike some other Coast Guard keepers whose marriages couldn’t withstand such close quarters at the Nubble and ended in divorce, Bob and Cathy French always got along well with no serious problems during their time there. They didn’t talk much to each other because “being a keeper, there wasn’t much to talk about.” They figured silence was better than trying to find reasons to create conversation between them.

The Frenches have been married 40 years now. They just sold their house in Maine, bought a travel trailer and are touring the country as camp hosts for the next few years. They reasoned that if they could survive living in a lighthouse together, they can certainly survive living in a camper!

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History