The trip of the freighter south was miraculously peaceful. Except for a gentle roll with the sea sparkling smooth, one beautiful day followed another. Toward the end of the ninth day out, the skipper passed the word, “We ought to see San Juan Light early tomorrow morning.” Everyone on board was excited by the news and wanted to get the first sight of the flashing light.
When the thumping of the propeller stopped next morning, the Dillon family and others were out on deck, some in their pajamas and bathrobes. It was about 2AM when the great flash of the lighthouse pierced the darkness. The captain moved the ship cautiously to the mouth of the harbor. Even there, it was too deep to anchor, so he drifted until daylight with its gorgeous tropical sunrise lighting up the strange skyline of the city.
The Dillon family was dressed, fed, and on deck drinking in the scene all around. A motorboat appeared from the lighthouse depot, identified by the red and black buoys on deck. I knew that I had been discovered. The family was helped down the gangway and amid “Goodbyes and Hellos,” was soon ashore and at the Superintendent’s dwelling.
As soon as the family routine of life was established, I took trips on the Tender Lilac, few less than two weeks’ duration. The captain had a fixed schedule arranged based on relieving all the buoys of the district twice a year.
Annually, a report had to be made to the Lighthouse Bureau of the buoys not relieved and the reasons therefore. This applied to the inspection of light stations as well. So, the inspection and buoy trips were generally arranged together.
Everything was made ready, buoys loaded and supplies taken aboard the day before so that an early start out of the harbor was made. The Trade Winds always died down at night and started up again about ten in the morning, blew at their intensity of from fifteen to twenty miles an hour by mid-afternoon, and died down again at nightfall. Rain was most unpredictable and seemingly could start briskly out of a clear sky, so that weather reports, except for an approaching hurricane in summer, were ignored.
The Tender Lilac was a coal burner and ice had to be carried, so that a trip of two weeks’ duration was a strain on fuel and refrigeration, to say nothing of the food supplies which could only properly be furnished in Puerto Rico at San Juan. On trips to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and the Panama Canal (some 1500 miles), the bunker capacity was about sixty tons and the hold reserved for cargo and buoyage would take about eighty tons more. The captain estimated that by the time the tender arrived in Guantanamo Bay, the hold would be free of coal. In Cuba, the Navy had a buoy depot, so no spare buoys had to be carried.
The tender cast off lines about daybreak with me aboard. I had fine quarters in the saloon on the upper deck. I could thank the Navy inspectors under the Lighthouse Board for that on this old tender. My meals were served in the saloon, too. I had slept aboard the night before sailing so that the skipper could make an early start. This trip was to the west half of Puerto Rico, including a run to a station on Mona Island, some forty miles further west.
Carefully, the tender swung on the entrance range line, out under the ramparts of El Morro and past the leper settlement on Cabras Island on the port side and well into the deep azure sea, where a course was set off the north shore almost due west. A long swell from the east lifted the tender as the beautiful panorama of the Pearl of the Antilles unrolled before my wandering gaze.
Could it be possible, thought I, that a million and one-half human beings in towns, villages and country, were going about their daily rounds in that jeweled scene in the distance? The palm trees which fringed the shore were already leaning before the Trade Wind. But what of the lighthouses I was to inspect and the keepers I would meet? Would they and their families be different from those in the States?
I went into the Pilot House to watch the course of the tender. Dryer, the First Officer, was on watch, puffing at a crusty pipe, the fumes of which could have asphyxiated all hands. A young, swarthy quartermaster was intent on juggling the wheel to keep the rising and falling tender steady on the course. The big, genial captain entered from his quarters, and, with a glance around, checked the situation. The tender was logging about ten knots.
“Captain,” said I, “How soon do we get to Arecibo Light, and how close in can you anchor?” He replied, “You know that there isn’t much of a harbor at Arecibo. It’s an open roadstead. Freighters drop anchor in about ten fathoms at an anchorage buoy and load and unload from lighters towed out to them. Do you see that hill way off there on the port quarter? Arecibo Lighthouse is just beginning to show above the top.
“It won’t be long now before we round the hill a little and drop the hook. After you get ashore, it is quite a climb up the hill from the rear. I’ll send a quartermaster with you who knows the trail, and when you have inspected Arecibo Light Station, you have seen almost all the other light stations on the island, they are so much alike.”
Soon, the full outline of the station developed. A distant tiny figure of a keeper emerged from a box-like structure that seemed to support the graceful tower at the center. As the tender slackened, the hill enlarged. The tower in the flat-topped masonry dwelling with graceful cornices assumed their enlarged proportions.
The keeper had disappeared. The tender was recognized with the lighthouse pennant flying. The rattle of anchor chain through the hawse pipe and fixing the chain stoppers told that the anchor was down. Already, the cargo boat swung out from the davits, awaiting. Six dusky seamen with Big Martin at the steering oar with powerful strokes lunged the boat rhythmically forward. “Alante muchachos. Todo juntes.” (Let’er go, boys. All together.) Around behind the big hill they grated to a landing.
“Pedro,” said I to the quartermaster, “Por donde va la via?” (Where is the trail?) “Por alli, direcho,” (This way, straight ahead) replied Pedro, as he nimbly started up the hill. It was quite a climb, especially in the hot sun, the beginning of many such climbs that I was to encounter in the years to come.
Out of breath at the top of the hill, I met the senior of the two keepers in his spotless white cotton drill uniform, standard of the Service in the tropics. The keeper had plenty of time to get into it, since he had first spied the tender.
To Be Continued . . .
This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses – 9th District: 1920 to 1927” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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