Boston light and water.

This weekend, I went on a sailing/camping trip to the Boston Harbor Islands. Photos are up here; there are a few movies here, here, and here. Everything’s linked from the usual spot.
We all met up at Cruftlabs on Saturday at 10 am. There were twelve of us all told: me, Josh, Lindsay, Broxton, mevay, greddy, Steve, Liz, Karen, Amy, Kailas, and Juhi. Josh, Lindsay, Broxton, Juhi, and I came in from Cambridge and hit up the Star across from the labs for out foodstuffs; we even managed a quick trip to the Kenmore Bruegger’s for breakfast. In two cars, we headed out to Winthrop, where Alex keeps his boat, the Charybdis, and where Josh had, the night before, moored a Rhodes 19, courtesy of the MIT Nautical Association. We were ferried out to the boats by the kind folks at the Cottage Park Yacht Club; we unloaded our gear, raised the sails, and set off for the harbor.
As we entered the channel on the way out of Winthrop, we came up next to the Aleida, another one of MIT’s boats, which is berthed at Winthrop. As we sailed along, we chatted a bit with the folks on the Aleida, who knew Alex. They were running on a motor, though, and the winds were strong, so we soon passed them and made our way out into the harbor.
Our first destination was Little Brewster Island, home of Boston Light, the oldest light station in the country and the only remaining Coast-Guard-operated lighthouse which is not fully automated. Alex had arranged for a tour, and it was most certainly a treat: I wouldn’t have thought a lighthouse would be so amazing, but I have to confess that it was one of the most aesthetically satisfying and engaging experiences I’ve had.
We were ushered onto the island by a woman in period dress, one of the lighthouse operators who lives on the island. She was a bit quirky — an understandable quality in one who lives on a three-acre bit of land bordered by harbor and open ocean — and the costume was unexplained aside from her brief use of the term “living history” — from her behavior I would guess her role as living history museum character is self-imposed rather than handed down by the US Coast Guard. She exhorted us to sign the guestbook and introduced the island dogs; once Josh and Alex had moored the boats, inflated a raft, and come ashore, she gathered us together and sent us in two groups of six up to the lighthouse itself.
We were met at the base of the tower by one of the volunteers, who described the nature of our ascent in the factoid- and statistic-heavy way of all tall-monument workers (N steps, X ladders, Y feet, &c.), gave us the technical specs on the light itself (1000-watt bulb, second-order Fresnel lens, &c.), and encouraged us not to risk it if we had heart problems or were otherwise ill-equipped to handle a lot of stairs all at once. Being young twenty-somethings invigorated by a sail across the harbor, we were, of course, unfazed, and as soon as the door was opened for us, we sprang upwards in an enthusiastic spiral.
At the top of the stairs, we met with a ladder leading up through an open trap door, on the other side of which stood another volunteer, who explained (as a mostly-disembodied voice from above) how we were to go up one at a time, as the door had to be shut after each of us to allow the person who’d just ascended to pass over to the next ladder. The first ladder brought us into the room where the gearwork and machinery which operates the light is housed. From there, we could look up into the dome of the Fresnel lens and the light itself, an immediately arresting sight which made me realize for the first time what I was going to be looking at.
You see, to me, the term Fresnel lens brings to mind the flat plastic sheets with the concentric circular ridges one extracts from overhead projectors gotten off reuse, the sort with which you can set campfires if you feel so inclined. This speaks to their focusing power; I had no idea, however, that the lenses existed in any form other than this flexible plastic incarnation, let alone one so goddamned beautiful. The lens itself is actually hundreds of pieces of glass held in position by a steel frame such that they focus the light at a particular length. Of course, this focal length is pretty much infinity for a lighthouse (Boston Light can be seen 27 miles away on a clear day), so when you’re actually in the room with the lens itself, you can look straight through it to see the 1000-watt bulb (and its twin backup) within — a pretty nifty sensation, kind of like being suddenly allowed to stare into the sun and have it not be so bright after all. Apparently the technique used by Fresnel to make these lenses is lost to the ages, so we were incredibly fortunate to have been allowed in the room, the volunteers trusting us completely to heed their warnings not to touch the lens. The experience was, to say the least, humbling.
The five minutes I spent in that room with the light were ones I shall remember forever, so deeply struck was I by the beauty of the experience. Imagine yourself a hundred feet in the air, in a room made of glass: outside, a 360-degree view of islands, city skyline, shore, and open ocean; inside, an enormous and beautiful multifaceted lens rotating slowly around a brilliant light, casting rainbows everywhere, refracting sun- and lamp-light in what seems like a million directions, distorting your reflection and shattering it into gloriously insane fragments; every rainbow, refraction, and reflection moving in the same continuous arc that sends the light from this single bulb out for miles, like some high school geometry diagram blown up, with you at the vertex. And, below all of this breathtaking light, the steady hum of well-oiled gears and motors working tirelessly, day and night, a comforting and satisfying sound, one which you might attribute to the sheer volume and quality of the light surrounding you, a light that sings, a rhythm to believe in. It is like being inside a prism.
As I stood there in the tower, trying to capture the glorious light with my camera as best I could, I was struck by what a beautiful mechanical system the lighthouse is: efficient, practical, and undeniably aesthetically gorgeous. It’s something the engineer and the artist both can appreciate, not to mention the fisherman or ship’s captain. I had always imagined lighthouses were like searchlights, an enormous bulb with a giant rotating mirror, something steely and blinding and unidirectional. I was astonished to discover this far more elegant solution — both technically and aesthetically so. I’m trying to think of contemporary mechanical systems which are as all-around beautiful; while it’s easy to succumb to the romantic idea that Things Were Better Back Then, I do get the sense that a certain quality of workmanship and design has been lost, or shifted, in exchange for efficiency, and so far I’ve been hard-pressed to come up with modern equivalents. I know there are some — I’ve had this wow-that’s-amazing reaction to technology before — but I’m not convinced that such systems would meet all three criteria (efficiency or technical beauty; usefulness or practical beauty; and pleasure of apprehension or straight-up aesthetic beauty). I think the closest thing I can come up with at the moment is the kinetic sculpture of Arthur Ganson, but it fails the usefulness test: it’s all whimsical rather than practical, which doesn’t make it any less awesome, but which keeps it in the domain of art rather than the useful arts.
(This seems like a wonderful encapsulation of what good design should do. I think that technical education can accomplish this. But: this train of thought should perhaps be saved for another entry…)
I left the tower in some sort of blissful aesthetic shock, feeling beatific, and even proud: I kept thinking to myself We made this, and was filled with a Mark-Helprin-worthy feeling of pride for Civilization. It was a sort of Hey, we’ve done a lot of horrific stuff, but look at this thing that we made. Isn’t it absolutely perfect? Lighthouses are the sort of things that save us.
To get a sense of what it was like, you should check out the two movies I took in the tower: [1] [2]
We picnicked on the island, and then reboarded the boats to head over to Great Brewster Island, where we set up camp for the night. The logistics of getting everyone and their gear ashore were interesting, equipped as we were with three inflatable rafts and three sets of oars of various origin, ranging from factory-made to greddy-made to the Kailas-made Walker-trays-screwed-to-crutches set, a particularly difficult pair to work with. A few people swam from the boats; in the end, we all made it to the beach a bit wet, some more so than others. No gear was lost, though there was a close call with Liz’s backpack.
We camped at the island’s pinnacle, a grassy area from which we could see both Boston Light and the Boston skyline (as well as Deer Island, though it was thankfully a bit more obscured by sumac — you don’t necessarily want to be thinking about the sewage of metro Boston while on a camping trip…), and which had a great view of the sunset over the city and the full moon rising over the Atlantic. We cooked our meals, ate on the beach, and headed back up to the top of the hill to prepare for bed. A bunch of the crew (myself not included) awakened for low tide at 3 a.m. to walk out to the end of the Brewster Spit, a long, skinny sandbar that appears when the water level drops. The grass on the top of the hill was long and soft, and made for comfortable sleeping.
In the morning, we made breakfast, lounged around a bit, and packed up our gear. We ferried all but our needs for the day out to the Charybdis, then climbed into the rafts for the (wet!) trip over to Calf Island, where we spent the early part of the afternoon exploring. The islands have all sorts of abandoned military installations and the like on them, so there are surprises everywhere. I was mostly dry by the time we headed back to the boats, but between about 11 am and 8 pm that day my underwear did not achieve dryness. It felt good to change, let me tell you!
Once we left Calf Island, we headed back to Boston. Mevay’s group took the Charybdis back to Winthrop; those of us on the Rhodes had further to go, since the plan was to return the boat to the MIT Sailing Pavilion before dark. Unfortunately, when we raised the sails, we discovered there was hardly any wind, and while Alex had a (glorious red) spinnaker, we were working off just a jib and mainsail, and we fell behind in pretty short order. It took us nearly 4 1/2 hours to get back to the Charles — which is an involved process in and of itself, as it involves stepping the mast at the Charlestown bridge, getting a tow from the Sailing Pavilion, going through the locks into the Charles River Basin, being towed all the way back to the ‘Tute. Luckily, we made it to the bridge before the Sailing Pavilion folks left for the day, and we were able to make it ashore by dusk.
Entering Boston by boat is an amazing experience, wholly different from any other approach to the city. The stretch once you enter the Charles River Basin is especially gorgeous, and we were blessed with a low moon amidst the sunset as well, with that particular late-afternoon light that angles in, hits the squinting eyes with a certain warmth, and briefly renders all colors ultra-saturated before eclipsing them into the dim black-and-white vision of low light. This is the light we had for our entry on a placid and smoothly-waving Charles, the sort of oscillations which are gentle enough to blur but not destroy reflections. As a result, we had the deep green Esplanade spreading up into the brick-and-treetop of Beacon Hill, capped by the golden State House and raised by the heights of downtown, all reflected in wobbling ovals on the river. We saw the sunset and the moon reflected in the glass of the Hancock tower; we saw the Prudential’s lights flicker on. We saw the lights of Fenway bleaching the skyline in the distance. It was beautiful.
We came gratefully ashore and were met by Alex, Steve, and Broxton. Once we’d gathered our gear, Lindsay, Broxton, and I indulged the sudden intense craving we had for Indian food before I came home, exhausted and happy, and fell almost immediately into bed.
It was a marvelous weekend; thanks to everyone who was involved.

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14 thoughts on “Boston light and water.

  1. We didn’t, though it would have been a fabulous idea. On the radio, we referred to ourselves as “MIT Rhodes”, which, upon reflection, is far less interesting.
    You might be interested to know, however, that there was some fond recollection of your dive into the harbor to catch the T those many summers ago…

  2. Marvelous exposition.
    I especially enjoyed your three principles of
    truly marvelous machinery. I think you and I
    could write *volumes* on that very subject. It’s
    wonderful.
    More specific to your trip, I’d like to point out
    one of the most incredible things about lighthouse
    design: the simple fact that each one is unique.
    I know it sounds trivial, but consider that most
    lighthouses had a distinctive pattern of flashes
    determined intrinsically by the design of the lens.
    Thus you could easily determine your position in
    the black of night. Some of them are even made to
    appear red when you approach them from a hazardous
    direction.
    Single-use design like that has been irrevocably
    lost to time for all but the most niche markets.
    The culprit is, to nobody’s surprise, also a buzzword:
    “COTS” (Commercial Off-The-Shelf). Architecture is
    rich with examples. Consider the moderately ground-
    breaking designs of Simmons Hall and, to a lesser
    extent, the Stata Center at MIT. Despite painstaking
    efforts to appear different, at the level of human
    interaction, both buildings employ the same old
    doorknobs, the same old elevator buttons, and the
    same old light fixtures you see in every post-1990’s
    office building. I’m not saying it’s impractical,
    but in a way it seems as if decoupage has supplanted
    the paintbrush and canvas.
    “Well, I could go on for hours, but I’d probably
    start to bore you…”

  3. You’d be surprised how many harbors do have truly unique combinations of lights (or no lights) and how few people world-wide think that the supposedly International Rules of the Road really apply. Shoal water you can see is never comforting, and less so when it is poorly marked. Setting Sea and Anchor in the dark doesn’t give anybody a warm and fuzzy.
    I had a buddy who was stationed at the automated Coast Guard lighthouse at the West End of Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans. This guy was “on watch” (at the automated lighthouse) from noon to 1800 or so, and then he sauntered across the way to Bart’s, where he proceeded to get sloshed, and then pass out in time to get up for noon the next day. Inspired by this, another friend joined the Coast Guard, only to find himself tossing ice flow sensors out the back of a C-130 on patrol out of Greenland, and cursing the minimal manning made possible by automation with every heave.

  4. O, the joys of life. Ain’t it grand. Thank you for sharing your observations, thoughts, experiences for all of us to enjoy.

  5. I recall them saying that the lighthouse had a unique pattern of flashes which allowed for identification, and I verified this later at night, when the pattern was more discernable. That’s a really simple and great way to convey rich information at a distance.
    Scott, I was looking to you for maybe some examples of really beautiful modern technological systems. You got any? I mean, I know exactly what you mean about Simmons and 32, but I’d like to come up with a set of positive examples of good design as well as determine what makes so many things today so utterly blah.
    Speaking of navigating at night, Josh & co.’s mooring of the R-19 at Winthrop the previous day had ended up taking place mostly after dark, and as we sailed out of Winthrop in the morning, he kept looking around saying, Man, it sure is easier to do this during the day. I don’t know how we did it at night!
    Me neither.

  6. Am sez:

    Scott, I was looking to you for maybe some examples of really beautiful modern technological systems. You got any? I mean, I know exactly what you mean about Simmons and 32, but I’d like to come up with a set of positive examples of good design as well as determine what makes so many things today so utterly blah.

    Oh, that I can address! What makes things today ‘so utterly blah‘ is the same thing that makes it so disappointing when one’s first girlfriend turns out to be insufficiently like one’s mom, and when one’s eventual wife turns out to be supernumerarily like one’s mom – nothing more or less than a combination of imprinting and nostalgia. In other words: ‘no accounting for tastes’ (though…). We like the idea of simplicity because we’re presented at every turn with a surfeit of options for viewing, listening, eating, wearing, living. Yet in the end we all, metaphorically speaking, ‘marry our mothers’ technologically and aesthetically. To do otherwise (i.e. to actually seek out and envelop ourselves with simplicity) requires a radical effort of will. We are not of a generation brought up to appreciate such things, in general. Zen-like calm does not come easily to MIT students (or alums), and we should not be so disingenuous as to place blame for that anywhere but on (if anywhere at all!) ourselves. If God existed, I guess we could pin it on that motherfucker too.
    [Note the author’s run-of-the-mill Oedipal fixation – deity-as-‘motherfucker’ indeed! – combined with a certain windiness of prose and nonlinearity (distractedness?) indicative of a parallel Oedipal relationship to literature, specifically the High Modern shit so appealing to a certain type of messianic Christian kid.]
    See, to me this is one of the joys of life. Not lighthouses. (For the most part.) Mine is not a fetish widely praised in the papers, mmm?

  7. This is the best blog entry/comment collection of the past year among youse guys! and an enticement to weezhoor’bout2diesalutingy’all.

  8. almost forgot:
    at sea level, the distance to the visual arc of the horizon is 13 miles in any one direction
    so I am wondering what the “rule” or “rule of thumb” would be (although I understand that the light is not only above water by the rise of the land, but also another say 100 feet in the air) that gives the final information that the light can be seen at 27 miles away
    (remember the porpoises flapping their tails on and leaping either side of the prow of the ssRijndam?)

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