25 years at the “Top”
May 2019 marked the 25th year that the volunteer light keepers of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary St Simons Island took on the responsibility from the Coast Guard active duty to maintain the iconic, heavily visited, working Lighthouse’s official Aid to Navigation (ATON) located in the village on St Simons Island, GA.
Since 1994, this multiple award winning, dedicated Light Team has been cleaning, maintaining, repairing, testing and replacing any aging parts that keep the historic original 3rd order Fresnel lens moving and brightly flashing its distinctive ATON signal out 23 plus miles to vessels entering the treacherous St Simons Sound.
It is understood that our light team is the oldest volunteer light team in America! So are members of the USCGAUX St Simons Island Flotilla proud of that continuous commitment of our volunteers…you bet we are!
Every single week on Thursday afternoon, rain or shine, wind or hail and before incoming hurricanes force island evacuations, members climb the 129 steps of the St Simons Island lighthouse, unlock and enter the restricted mechanical room, then climb 10 more feet up to the bright, and always hot, lens room and set to their tasks. Day or night they are subject to be called to repair a light that has extinguished or the flash is interrupted and they always, faithfully, answer that emergency call. Devotion to duty is first and foremost to the St Simons Light Team. Their dedication of purpose embodies our Flotillas moto “Guardians of the Golden Isles”.
As keepers of the light, the team must see that during power outages, the light remains lit for incoming mariners. For this responsibility, the team had to rely on availability of a generator from the Port of Brunswick and the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association to continually run the light for commercial maritime traffic. Then in 2018, our Flotilla, along with help from the UGA Marine Extension Brunswick, were able to take that bothersome matter away from our Light Team by purchasing a reliable LP generator for the team to have on hand anytime it is needed.
Recently, in both 2016 and 2017, Light Team members did not evacuate for devastating Hurricanes Matthew and Irma until the guiding light was checked and ready for the storms. Each time the storms passed, and the island opened to essential workers, some of the Light Team made it in to make sure of the light’s critical operation.
The current Light Team members are Jeff Cole, Ralph Ainger, John Farmer and Charles Wiggins. Only a single current member, Jeff Cole, remains as the original member of the team from that first standing order issued by the Coast Guard in 1994. He has provided uninterrupted volunteer service for the last 25 years.
Additionally, there have been other members who have given many years of service including Al Dixon and Randy Irwin. The team has lost at least two original/long standing members, Bernie Long and Bob West who crossed the bar in the last few years. Together all these distinguished SSI Light Team members have contributed well over 10,000 volunteer hours to their ongoing mission since 1994.
The Light Team is always welcoming of anyone to join them that feels they can dedicate themselves to the team’s lofty goals.
In addition to their assigned duties, our Flotilla Light Team members are wonderful ambassadors of not only the USCG Auxiliary, but the USCG active duty, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society and the coastal community.
The Historical Society was deeded, from the Coast Guard, the Lighthouse, Keepers Cottage and grounds in 2002 after leasing it since 1994. The Auxiliary Light Team stayed on to maintain the light itself. This is a remarkable crew; the Historical Society will quickly tell you they are so grateful to have in the light keeper’s capacity. Not only does the team keep the 1000-watt lamp burning as a USCG aid to navigation but they apply all the necessary repair and maintenance. Their care insures that the originality of the historic, lighthouse with its irreplaceable Fresnel lens and revolving mechanism, that incredibly have all been in continuous service since 1872, remain intact to accurately rotate and illuminate, faithfully bursting its distinctive flash at every 60 seconds night after night and year after year.
Therefore, for their unique and valuable service to the community, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society are teaming up with our St Simons Island Flotilla to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our crucial dedicated Light Team with an invitational event on May 23rd on the lighthouse grounds.
Unaware tourists, residents and other guests who climb up to the observation deck, often find our Light Team members at work on a Thursday afternoon. Still, the team members enjoy taking time to share local knowledge, always eager to point out landmarks from that circular balcony at the top. The majesty of the lofty tower inspires awe in its 360-degree scope of magnificent sights so high above St Simons Sound and the popular Pier Village. Our volunteer Light Team love the light and are eager to offer tales of its official function as well as fascinating history, legends and lore to any who inquire.
Being part of the “St Simons Bar Channel range” the mariners entering the St Simons Sound at night will visibly place the white ATON beacon from the St Simons Lighthouse tower in the center of two red beacons on the steel towers located just into the Frederica River at the south tip of St Simons Island. When these 3 tower lights are lined correctly, the vessel’s pilot will safely maneuver through the deeper Bar Channel buoys thus avoiding the hazard of the extended shallows and always shifting bar, assuring navigators that they will not run aground. In daylight hours, the tower itself is a charted daymark distinguished by its bright white structure with black trim.
The St Simons Island Light Team is undoubtedly one of the Island’s best kept secrets. That exceptionally faithful band of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla St Simons Island volunteer light keepers, dutifully repair, revitalize and otherwise maintain the celebrated major icon and attraction of our Island home and keep the picturesque St Simons Light as a fully functioning ATON as per their standing orders of 25 years and going forward. Indeed, the light’s operation is a crucial element of the Coast Guard motto; “Semper Paratus”.