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Navigation of yore: Follow the sound of the belching whale

2012 June 6

I grew up to the sound of whales belching.

All right, it wasn't really whales belching. In fact, there are no whales in the inland sea that dominates the climate in the small port city that is my hometown.

But if whales had been around, and if they were capable of belching (I'm not well informed about this, but I expect a reader will enlighten me), they might have sounded the way the foghorn in our port's lighthouse used to sound.
To a child's ears, the deep, long, impossibly loud, baritone blasts (think of Darth Vader's echo-chamber rumble on steroids) could have burped from the mouth of a giant sea creature.

When fog appeared-a frequent occurrence as icy vapors come ashore in spring-and the lighthouse keeper flipped the switch, the horn blasts reverberated through stores, offices, restaurants and taverns and the whole downtown embracing the harbor seemed to vibrate. I know from firsthand observation that the windows shook in the classrooms of the old St. Mary's School building on the hill overlooking the lighthouse. There was no escape from the two horn blasts a minute even at home, though our house sat on a bluff two miles down the shore from the lighthouse.

To this day, when I see fog I hear that old whale of a fog horn, though it has been silent for decades.

The belching foghorn, alas, was politically incorrect. Too loud for sensitive ears ashore, someone with authority over lighthouses said. So it was replaced with a signal that sounds like the union of a ping and peep.
The downtown stopped vibrating. The new horn could barely be heard on the landward side of the lighthouse, and it wasn't much louder on the seaward side. At least, that's what commercial fishermen grumbled.

Their tugs stayed in the harbor on days that dawned in fog-there was no way they could find their gill nets 30 or 40 miles offshore in near-zero visibility. But when fog set in while they were at sea, they depended on the old belcher to find their way home. Though they were good at dead-reckoning, at some point in air thick as soup they had to shut down the banging Kahlenberg diesel and listen for the distinctive sound of their home port.

The loudness of foghorns doesn't matter much these days, lighthouse navigation being another of the old seaman's skills rendered obsolete by GPS. Sailors who have come of age in the age of GPS may not know that lighthouses once did some of what satellite navigation does today-they told mariners where they were.

Like this: It's a clear but boisterous night at sea. A boat sailing close-hauled is closing on a still invisible shore. As the boat rises on a particularly big wave, a crewmember spies a faint flash of white light on the horizon. Binoculars are produced, eyes strain, at last the sharp-eyed sailor confirms it's a lighthouse beacon.

The skipper asks, "Is it a group occulting white light?"

"A what?"

Irritated, the skipper explains: "Obviously that means three eclipses of two seconds each, two light periods of two seconds each and one light period of 20 seconds. If that's what you're seeing, it's the Manistee pierhead light and we're less than 15 nautical miles away from it."

Suffice it to say lighthouse navigation wasn't child's play, unlike glancing at a GPS receiver, but it worked. With information from the Coast Guard Light List, the skipper was able to identify the light and learn that it could be seen from 15 miles away. A fairly accurate position could be obtained with a bearing on the light and an estimate of the distance to it.

You can still do that, of course. It's a nice diversion on, say, the midnight to 4 a.m. watch when you're in coastal waters. The Light List is still published annually in seven editions for the various regions of U.S. navigable waters, with updates available weekly. You can buy bound volumes at nautical books stores, or download the lists free from the Internet.

That's an example of your tax dollars at work in a good way. The Light List is the bible for not just lighthouse information, but essential details about every U.S. government navigation aid extant. In the case of the lighthouses themselves, though, the government is trying to cut back on the number of tax dollars at work.

Since 2000, when a law allowing government lighthouses deemed unnecessary to safe navigation to be sold or given away was passed, the Coast Guard has gotten rid of 84 lighthouses, 28 of which have been auctioned to private individuals. Others were transferred to local governments or non-profit organizations.

That may make fiscal sense, but at the risk of losing priceless American icons. Lighthouses, besides in many cases being objects of physical beauty in construction ingenuity in stirring marine settings, are symbols of the rich seafaring history of America's seacoasts, and it would mock that heritage to allow them to fall into disuse and ruin.

The bright side-as in when, in Light List lingo, the illuminated part of an occulting light revolves into view-of this is that almost everyone agrees with that statement. People love lighthouses. They can't get enough of them. Restorations are going on all over the country. Donations are pouring in. Tourists are flocking to tour lighthouses and leaving with lighthouse T-shirts. Lighthouses, it seems, will be saved not for what they do, but for what they once did.

If the Coast Guard ever puts my port's lighthouse up for sale, I might make a bid. If I were successful, the first thing I'd do would be to put the whale belching horn back in service.