Gay Head Light

They moved Gay Head Light. This point of land, also known by the Wampanoag Indian name Aquinnah, shows a flashing sequence of red and white that carries twenty-four nautical miles out to sea. But the cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard continue to erode, threatening the lighthouse, so it was recently moved back.

Moved light

(A 129 foot journey from the spot it occupied since 1844.)

In my early twenties I visited the light by bicycle on many occasions. Back then, I was paying a portion of a summer season rental, $275 I believe, which entitled me to every weekend from May to October, plus two summer vacation weeks. Today, that same amount might buy you a couple of round-trip car ferry rides or maybe a men’s bathing suit in one of the island’s tonier shops.

I don’t get to the island much these days, but I keep an eye on it. From our house in Rhode Island we see the Vineyard in the far distance, the light above Aquinnah flashing bright, even more so at night when it stands out among a constellation of navigational beacons that includes the Buzzards Bay entrance tower, lights off Cuttyhunk, and markers that guide boaters into Westport, Massachusetts. Modern navigation now relies on GPS, radar, chart plotting and Sat Nav, but lighthouses remain the darlings of the shoreline.

This weekend we went to a wedding celebration in Kennebunkport, Maine. This trip north to waters defined by rocks and tall stands of shoreline conifers reminded me of another lighthouse, one visited in my youth. I recall being six or seven years old, sitting in my great-aunt’s two-station varnished rowboat while my father worked a pair of long cupped oars to carry us from Juniper Point to a nearby lighthouse off Boothbay Harbor. At the completion of each stroke the oars left small whirlpools of circling water, and with each backstroke a constant stream of water fell from the lower tip of the oar, the blades staying just above the water’s surface each and every time.

We tied up at the island dock, greeted the light keeper, and climbed the circular lighthouse stairs where I heard about the prisms of a fresnel light. I returned home with a large bulb, a prized souvenir that became a show-and-tell item when I began the next year of school.

I don’t think I ever connected that trip with my frequent need to now watch the light shine above the Vineyard. I have, however, often thought of my father’s graceful and accomplished rowing. Perhaps I’ve spent too much of my life trying to imitate the creation of those perfect pools of water and that smooth cadence of the oars, maybe too much focus on form. Then again, maybe not enough.

I am grateful for that rowboat ride. Thankful, too, for those $275 summers. Forever grateful, as well, for our spot along the Rhode Island coast. And for those lighthouses that adorn our charts, our imaginations, and our lives.


by John M. Urban

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About John Urban

Like his protagonist, John Urban has worked as a college professor and he sails the waters of Southern New England on an old wooden sailboat that he restored. He is a regular contributor to the blog Write On The Water, and his short stories have appeared in the anthologies Seasmoke and Deadfall. The ocean was his desired destination from an early age. As a boy living a landlocked life in Western Massachusetts, nights were dedicated to reading about boats and watching Flipper and weekends were spent boating and fishing, April-to-October, on Long Island Sound. Thoughts of a career at sea ended early after a stint at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, but the circle of life has come around some years later in the form of the fictional world of Steve Decatur. Urban lives just outside Boston and spends his summers near the waters edge of Buzzards Bay and Rhode Island Sound. A Single Deadly Truth, published on Amazon Kindle, is Urban's debut novel. As second Steve Decatur mystery, Masters of Rhode Island, is due out later this year.
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3 Responses to Lighthouse

  1. Kathleen says:

    Just lovely!

  2. Harry Switzer says:

    Beautiful story John. Brought back memories. You do have much to be thankful for; as do we, who also enjoy looking out onto Gay head and watching the activity of lights.


  3. Harry Switzer says:

    Beautiful story John. It brings back memories. Great pictures as well.


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