Lighthouse work awaited departure of nesting osprey

OLD FRIEND TO SAILORS GETS FRESH PAINT

August 31, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

The latest tenants are away, perhaps until next spring, so the historic brick house on the Chesapeake Bay is getting a face lift.

The tenants are a family of ospreys, and the "house" is the Sandy Point Lighthouse, which for 112 years has warned mariners away from a treacherous shoal near the western end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

"We had to delay until they left," said Lt. j.g. Kathryn Dunbar, executive officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Red Birch, which is charged with upkeep of what is perhaps the bay's most familiar lighthouse.

This week, as yachts, tour boats and the occasional surfboarder cruise by, the cutter's crew is giving the old lighthouse a fresh coat of "safety red" paint and repairing its rusting iron railings and ladder.

The two osprey chicks hatched this spring did not leave the nest until about three weeks ago, so now, the 35-member crew is racing to finish while good painting weather lasts.

"We're pushing to get it done by tomorrow," Lieutenant Dunbar said yesterday.

The Sandy Point lighthouse hasn't been staffed since 1963, when its beacon and foghorn were automated. The Coast Guard maintains the facility, but it has been six years since the last repairs, and the weather has taken its toll.

Renovation had been slated in May, but then some Coast Guardsmen spotted an osprey's nest under one of the house's dormer windows. The fish-eating birds often nest on channel markers and other high perches over the water.

Once devastated by DDT poisoning, ospreys have rebounded strongly since the pesticide was banned 25 years ago. However, they remain protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Yesterday, sailors and tour-boat passengers snapped photographs and a swimsuited man on a surfboard paddled out from shore and around the light as crew members used long-handled paint rollers to reach the top of the lighthouse's brick wall.

Another crew is scheduled to arrive by fall to replace the lighthouse's aging, copper-sheathed roof and repair the crumbling concrete walkway around the base.

A lighthouse has been at Sandy Point since 1858, according to the Maryland Historical Society, when a tiny lantern was placed atop a keeper's house built near where the bridge is today. The land-based light proved too distant for vessels, however, and in 1883 a new structure was placed offshore to mark the outer edge of the shoal, now in 7 feet of water.

It is a caisson-style light, anchored with an iron caisson or casing filled with concrete and stone. On that foundation squats an eight-sided, two-story brick house, with a beacon atop its mansard roof.

The light's white beacon, now powered by solar energy, flashes every six seconds, and its foghorn blasts every 30 seconds except in the relatively fog-free summer.

It was once manned by a keeper -- and often his family -- who would spend a month there before being relieved by another keeper, said Ensign Mark Golden.

The 32 lighthouses remaining on the bay and its tributaries are no longer manned, and their importance to navigation has dimmed somewhat as ships today often rely more on radar, satellites and computers to plot their courses. But the beacons remain popular with sailors and the general public, and the Coast Guard regularly maintains them.

Lighthouse repairs are a treat of sorts for the crew of the Red Birch, a 157-foot buoy tender based at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore. Other branches of this venerable military service -- founded in 1790 -- patrol the coast for smugglers, drug traffickers and sailors in distress. This cutter's mission is to maintain "navigational aids," which mainly involves repairing and replacing 378 buoys marking shipping channels and shoals in the bay and its tributaries from Baltimore to just south of the Virginia border.

The crew must respond within 48 hours whenever a mariner reports a "discrepancy" in a buoy, which could mean that either a beacon just doesn't look right or a ship just rammed one and sank it. The duty keeps the crew hopping, especially in winter, when buoys are vulnerable to ice and storms. The service's motto is "Semper Paratus" -- always ready.

Fixing up a lighthouse "gives us something different to do," said Capt. Scott Pisel, skipper of the Red Birch. The crew tries to work on a different lighthouse every year as a break from minding buoys.

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