The U.S. Coast Guard Keeps the Light Shining at
Harbor of Refuge

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse
on an icy January morning

The Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation may be the proud new owners of the historic Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, but the nonprofit organization does not stand “watch” alone as keepers of the light. Each and every night Harbor of Refuge sends forth a flashing white light – its guiding beam swinging out over Lewes Harbor and the golden sands of Cape Henlopen, before reaching 14 nautical miles to sea as it beckons inbound commercial shipping seeking the entrance to Delaware Bay.

There to ensure that Harbor’s beam pierces the black of night to show the way to safe passage is the United States Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Cape May, New Jersey. Though the lighthouse hasn’t been home to resident lightkeepers since automation removed their presence in 1973, the Coast Guard “keepers of the light” never strayed far. In fact, Coast Guard aids to navigation teams are simply an outgrowth of the time-honored duty of tending to the lights on site – a responsibility they continue to perform with great skill and pride.

Separated by 17 miles of water across the bay in New Jersey, the USCG ANT team at Cape May maintains a watchful eye on Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse from afar. The unit visits the sentinel on a quarterly basis to ensure the beacon’s optic, foghorn, solar panels and batteries are working at optimum performance. On the rare occasion that the light or foghorn fails, you can count on the “keepers of the light” springing into action to attend to the discrepancy.

Ice passes Harbor of Refuge Light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A line of frozen slush and
ice floes by the lighthouse

One such example of dedication for tending to the lights no matter the weather conditions occurred on January 19, 2005 when members of USCG ANT Cape May responded to Harbor of Refuge following a report that the light was extinguished. Responding to discrepancies in the warm air of summer makes for generally smooth operations, but when “Old Man Winter” blows his icy winds over the Delaware Bay, the working conditions in the field for Coast Guard aids to navigation (ATON) technicians are more cumbersome and usually less than desirable.

Simply getting to or boarding a lighthouse in the dead of winter can sometimes be a harrowing task that requires ANT team personnel to rely heavily on their polished skills and commitment to duty in order to overcome the harsh elements. With 25 degree temperatures feeling more like 16 degrees thanks to the wind chill factor, ANT Cape May personnel set out over the desolate waters of Delaware Bay for Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse where the beacon stands silent sentinel atop the south end of 1.5 mile- long breakwater.

On this day any thoughts of disembarking in an effortless fashion at the lighthouse vanished into the frozen air. Heavy Atlantic waves and bone-chilling sea spray breaking over the massive stone wall had left their mark on the dock area in the form of King Neptune’s version of creative “ice art.” The ATON technicians knew that despite the incredibly slippery conditions present everywhere atop the deck, the light at Harbor of Refuge was extinguished and thus it was necessary to cross the treacherous wintry glaze. Avoiding spots of frozen spray on the bow of the boat, the crew gingerly spanned the airspace over the water between the boat and dock before setting foot on the rime of the deck. From there, tool bags and equipment were carefully handed over before the ATON technicians skated across the deck and up the stairs to the lighthouse.

Dock encased in ice
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

"Old Man Winter" encased the
dock in ice at Harbor of Refuge

The exterior wood decks at the lighthouse were not the only objects suffering from the paralyzing grip of “Old Man Winter.” As the crew reached for the keys to the lighthouse to unlock the steel door, it quickly became apparent that the bay’s frozen moisture had also seized-up both of the padlocks. After taking a couple of minutes to work the locks loose, the technicians climbed the 74 steps leading to the lantern room to begin diagnosing the reason for the light’s failure. In systematic fashion, the components of the Vega VRB-25 optic, its control box and solar panels were all examined during the fact-finding process.

Troubleshooting revealed the problem to be a faulty daylight control unit, which senses light and darkness. This important piece of hardware – the appearance and approximate size of a round electrical household fuse, is critical to the performance of the automated aids to navigation equipment. Without the presence of human to turn on the light, the daylight control unit becomes essential to activating the beacon’s optic when the sun is chased from the evening sky by the realm of nightfall. Toiling outside in the face of icy winds blowing 17 to 20 knot, ATON technicians replaced the daylight control unit, tested the optic, batteries and solar panels before leaving the lighthouse in good working order.

Time and technologies may continue to change, but the one constant that remains in place is the Coast Guard’s commitment to being the very best “keepers of the light” in the time-honored tradition of their predecessors – thus ensuring safe waterways across America’s vast coastline and inland waters in the 21st century.

Created: January 2005

Ice formations on the dock
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Remnants of Atlantic seas formed
interesting ice creations on the dock

Crew works to install new daylight control
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) EM2 Pat Connolly and EM3 Taylor
Mitchell work to install a new daylight control
unit at Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse

EM3 Mitchell works on lampchanger
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Taylor Mitchell removes
the lampchanger from the
light's Vega VRB-25 optic

Harbor of Refuge Breakwater
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The large stones on the
south end of the National
Harbor of Refuge Breakwater
give the appearance of
giant ice cubes

EM2 Connelly prepares to disconnect light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM2 Pat Connelly prepares
to throw the disconnect
switch to the light during
the troubleshooting process

EM3 Mitchell replaces lamps
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Taylor Mitchell replaces
the lamps of the CG-6P lampchanger
for the Vega optic

Testing voltage to the daylight control
Photo by Dennis Dever

A Coastguardsman tests the
voltage to the daylight control
unit with a 77-BN Fluke Multimeter
(yellow intrument)

EM3 Taylor Mitchell
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Taylor Mitchell troubleshoots
the light's solar control box
inside the first level of the lighthouse

USCG Auxiliarist Bob Trapani
Photo by Pat Connelly

USCG Auxiliarist Bob Trapani
was part of the three man crew
responding to the discrepancy

Pilot boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

ANT Cape May personnel boarded
and disembarked the light on the
icy bow of a Pilot boat