Personal Notes: On Becoming Lighthouse Innkeepers

We wanted to see if the lifestyle of a lighthouse innkeeper might be in our future. We organize a visit to East Brother Island and its popular light station located just 30 minutes from San Francisco. Join us, this could be your cup of tea.

Where we are

East Brother Island is located in San Pablo Bay, which connects to San Francisco Bay.

East Brother Light Station is managed by a Richmond nonprofit conservation group, which in 1980 obtained permission from the Coast Guard to renovate and maintain the active light station.

The organization relies on many volunteers to help with ongoing maintenance and pays most of its bills by renting out the five rooms on the island, four days a week.

get to the island

After a series of email communications, we agreed to meet and interview the innkeeper couple at the lighthouse on East Brother Island.

On Monday morning, we were waiting in the less than luxurious yacht harbor of Point San Pablo when our captain/innkeeper pulled up to the dock in the island’s aluminum boat.

Before we could board the ship, the Captain first attended to the guests leaving the island. The visitors must have enjoyed their island experience because everyone was laughing and behaving like old friends.

After the introductions, our host fired up the engines and pulled out of the harbor for a short 10-minute drive to the island.

He immediately briefed us on what to expect when we arrived at the dock. He described how we would have to climb a very vertical stainless steel swimming pool ladder that extends from the boat deck to the landing dock that joins the island. Depending on the tide, the rise can be up to 12 feet. Think about that before making reservations if you can’t physically climb a ladder. Also, unfortunately the island cannot be ADA compliant.

Buildings and facilities on the island

The one-acre island has two old buildings plus a Victorian lighthouse from 1874. The old work shed has been converted into a cozy cottage for innkeepers, and the other outbuilding houses the machinery needed to run the sirens of fog.

The island has electrical power supplied by an underwater cable from the mainland and a self-contained water system that contains about 90,000 gallons of rainwater stored in a white-lined underground cistern and an above-ground redwood water tank.

Due to the ever-present danger of water shortages in the Bay Area, there are no showers available for guests staying just one night. No one seemed to mind the inconvenience.

After gathering our photographic equipment and climbing the steep ramp between the dock and the island, the Captain gave us a tour of the first building we came across, which houses the machinery to operate the foghorns. For our benefit, he turned on the diesel generator and gave us a live performance of the trumpets.

Become an Island Innkeeper

We soon discovered that our hosts had only been lighthouse keepers for ten weeks and, at the time of writing, had already moved on to their next adventure. Headlight maintenance is a fun but demanding job and the turnover is quite high, but apparently that’s not a big deal for the interested parties.

How many people would love to run a Victorian Bed and Breakfast on a small California island with a good salary, room and board, seals, pelicans, and a five-star view of the San Francisco skyline? Many, that’s how many.

We are told that the number of applicants for the job is usually large, but there are serious eliminating factors in the innkeeper application.

One applicant must be an excellent cook and able to prepare and present food for a table of ten.

Another requirement is that one of the applicants must have a commercial vessel operator’s license from the Coast Guard.

Finally, the two potential innkeepers must be charming. Now we are getting somewhere.

about work

In the case of the East Brother Light Station, the island is open to the public four nights a week beginning Thursday.

Preparing for the guests

On Wednesday morning, the innkeepers are ashore buying provisions for up to 40 guests (5 rooms x 2 guests x 4 nights). They select food for the menu, collect mail, clothes, fuel and whatever else they will need for the next week on the island.

On Thursday morning, they boat back to the island with supplies, unload their cargo onto a large wire cart waiting on the dock, and drive the cart up a steep ramp that connects the dock to the island. They unload and store supplies and prepare the island for visitors.

A day with guests

On Thursday evening promptly at 4:00 pm, the designated Captain/innkeeper returns to the marina dock at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor to board Thursday night guests.

Upon returning to the island, the hosts provide a tour, champagne appetizers, and show guests to their rooms.

Visitors then have ample time to explore the small island and enjoy the seabirds, animals and fabulous views before dinner.

At dinner, visitors are served a multi-course meal exquisitely prepared with the finest fresh ingredients.

All the guests are seated at a large table, which creates a pleasant atmosphere and an opportunity to socialize.

Friday morning would come too soon, but a sumptuous gourmet breakfast awaited all the guests. Shame on those overnight guests who must now return to the mainland to resume their daily lives.

After moving the guests and their luggage to the mainland dock, the captain returns to the island to help his mate clean up and prepare for the new guests on Friday afternoon.

Saturday and Sunday are a repeat of Thursday and Friday.

After saying goodbye to the last guests of the week on Monday morning, the innkeeper returns to the island and to the tasks he was unable to complete during the work week.

Later in the day, the innkeepers load the laundry along with the empty bottles and garbage onto the island’s wire cart. The cart is pulled to the opposite end of the island and is hitched up and winched down to the waiting boat on the island. The innkeepers leave for the port, unload the cargo and begin a well-deserved Tuesday of rest.

it’s not for everyone

The innkeepers at East Brother Light Station live a romantic life filled with compliments from guests, fresh air, sunshine, sea birds and seals. There are probably several of our readers who would trade places if they could. Life is short, you might want to give it a try! However, we decided against it.

Happy travels!

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