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Notes to Self: On Becoming Lighthouse Innkeepers
We wanted to find out if the lighthouse innkeeper lifestyle could be in our future. We arranged a visit to East Brother Island and its popular light station, located just 30 minutes from San Francisco. Join us, this might be your cup of tea.
Where are we
East Brother Island is located in San Pablo Bay, which joins San Francisco Bay.
The East Brother Light Station is managed by a Richmond-based nonprofit conservation organization that obtained a permit from the Coast Guard in 1980 to renovate and maintain the active light station.
The organization has many volunteers who help with ongoing maintenance and pays most of the bills by renting out five bedrooms on the island, four days a week.
Get to the island
After a series of email communications, we arranged to meet and interview a couple of innkeepers at the lighthouse on East Brother Island.
Monday morning we were waiting at the less fancy Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor when our captain/innkeeper pulled up to the dock in the island’s aluminum tender.
Before we could board the boat, the captain first helped the guests leaving the island. The visitors must have enjoyed their island experience as they all laughed and carried on as if they were old friends.
After the show, our host started the engines and left the harbor for the short 10 minute drive to the island.
He immediately informed us of what to expect when we arrived at the wharf. He described how we would have to climb up a very vertical stainless steel pool type ladder that extends from the deck of the boat to the jetty that is connected to the island. Depending on the tide, the rise can be up to 12 feet. Think before you book if you are physically unable to climb a ladder. The island is also unfortunately unable to comply with the ADA.
Buildings and facilities on the island
The one-acre island has two historic buildings in addition to an 1874 Victorian lighthouse. The old shed has been converted into a cozy innkeeper’s cabin, and another outbuilding houses the equipment needed to power the working fog horns.
The island has electricity supplied by an underwater cable from the mainland and a separate water system that holds about 90,000 gallons of rainwater stored in a white-clad underground cistern and an overhead redwood water tank.
Due to the ever-present threat of water shortages in the Bay Area, showers are not available for overnight guests. No one seemed to mind the inconvenience.
After collecting our photography gear and walking up the steep ramp between the jetty and the island, the captain gave us a tour of the first building we came across that houses the fog horn control equipment. For our benefit, he started the diesel generator and gave us a live rendition of the horns.
Become an island innkeeper
We soon discovered that our hosts had only been lighthouse keepers for ten weeks and at the time of this writing had already set off on their next adventure. Maintaining a lighthouse is fun but hard work and the turnover is quite high, but this is apparently not a big problem for the parties involved.
How many people would want to run a Victorian guesthouse on a small island in California with good pay, room and board, seals, pelicans and a five-star view of the San Francisco skyline? Much, much.
We’re told that the pool of job applicants is usually high, but there are serious weeding factors in the innkeeper application.
One of the applicants must be an excellent cook and able to prepare and present a meal for ten people.
Another qualification is that one of the applicants must have a Coast Guard Commercial Vessel Operator’s License.
Finally, both potential innkeepers must be charming. Now we’re getting somewhere.
In the case of East Brother Light Station, the island is open for business four nights a week beginning Thursday.
Preparation for guests
On Wednesday mornings, the innkeepers are on the property buying food for up to 40 guests (5 rooms x 2 guests x 4 nights). They’ll pick out food for the menu, pick up mail, laundry, fuel, and anything else they’ll need for the next week on the island.
On Thursday morning, they board back to the island with supplies, unload their cargo into a large wire cart waiting at the pier, and winch the cart up the steep ramp that connects the pier to the island. They unload and store supplies and prepare the island for visitors.
A day with guests
Thursday afternoon promptly at 4:00 PM, the designated skipper/innkeeper returns to the dock at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor to board guests for Thursday evening.
Upon arrival back on the island, hosts will provide a tour, champagne appetizers and show guests to their rooms.
Visitors then have plenty of time before dinner to explore the small island and enjoy the seabirds, animals and fabulous views.
For dinner, visitors are treated to an exquisitely prepared multi-course meal made from the finest fresh ingredients.
All guests sit at one large table, which creates a hospitable atmosphere and an opportunity for social gatherings.
Friday morning would come too early, but a sumptuous gourmet breakfast awaited all guests. Pity the overnight guests who now have to go back to the mainland to get on with their daily lives.
After transferring the guests and their luggage to the mainland dock, the captain returns to the island to help his partner clean up and prepare for the new guests on Friday afternoon.
Saturday and Sunday are repeats of Thursday and Friday.
After saying goodbye to the last guests of the week on Monday morning, the innkeeper heads back to the island and to the chores that couldn’t be completed during the work week.
Later in the day, the innkeepers load the laundry, along with empty bottles and trash, into the island’s wire cart. The cart is pulled to the opposite end of the island and hooked and lowered with a winch to the island’s waiting boat. The innkeepers leave for the port, unload their cargo and begin a well-deserved rest day on Tuesday.
It’s not for everyone
The innkeepers of East Brother Light Station live a romantic life of guest glory, fresh air, sunshine, seabirds and seals. There are probably a few of our readers who would trade places if they could. Life is short, you might want to give it a try! However, we decided not to.
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