Hope Town Light - Abacos, Bahamas

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Photos by Hayden Cochran & Stephen Blakely

Technically, it’s Elbow Reef Lighthouse, which is why it was built: to mark one of the deadliest shallows in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. But it’s better known as Hope Town Light, a red-and-white candy-striped tower in the most beautiful and historic little harbor town in the Bahamas.

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It’s one of only three lighthouses in the world — all in the Bahamas — still lit by kerosene and with a lens that rotates by hand-cranked weights.

Much-loved now, Hope Town Light was despised when it was completed in 1864. Local “wrackers” made a good living salvaging wrecks on Elbow Reef, and they tried to sabotage its construction. When it was threatened by automation in the 1990s, the Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society stepped in to help maintain its equipment and technology.

Jeffrey Forbes, senior principal keeper of the light, followed his grandfather and father into the business. To ignite the “soul” of the lighthouse, he must lug or winch 5-gallon cans of kerosene up to the cast-iron vaporizer just below the light. The fuel goes in the top tank and hand-pumped compressed air in the bottom tank, which pipe vapor to the wick upstairs. Each evening, Forbes removes the white curtain that protects the lens from damaging sunlight, then climbs inside the lens chamber and carefully preheats kerosene in the atomizer, just below the wick. When it’s ready, he opens a valve, and a ghostly mist rises into the center of the dark chamber. He gently touches it with a match flame, the mist transforms into an ethereal yellow veil, and the wick pops to blinding, hissing life — 325,000 candlepower that’s visible 17 miles at sea, a first-order light.

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Forbes climbs out of the lens room, removes the break on the gearbox, and the lens turret begins to rotate once every 15 seconds, pulled by weights inside the iron column at the center of the lighthouse. The weights must be wound up every four hours. The entire 4-ton lens assembly floats in a cast-iron ring filled with mercury.

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Five Fresnel lens panels revolve around the burning wick, sending out five flashes, one a second, with a 10-second pause — the signature message that keeps mariners from coming to grief on Elbow Reef.

June 2014 issue