Picture a beautiful building tumbling down the south-facing bluff on Block Island. This scenario did not play out in real life, because in August of 1993, after 10 years of planning and fundraising, the Southeast Lighthouse was moved 300 feet away from the bluffs. It had to be done; the endgame was obvious. It was a grassroots deal and folks on Block Island made this happen. They wanted the lighthouse to be saved. A sea change is an expression, which can be used literally or figuratively. In the aforementioned context, the term is used literally — an alteration made by the sea. Erosion was taking its toll on the bluffs.
On one of my recent “busman’s holidays” to Martha’s Vineyard, I did the usual drill: drove around aimlessly, read books, visited some friends and looked at stuff. I did the walk around Cottage City, in Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. For some reason, I enjoy looking at the designs of old houses — I don’t know why, I just do. While out in Aquinnah, I stopped by the Gay Head Lighthouse. Like the Southeast — due to sea changes — this historic landmark had to be moved. Likewise, it was moved because folks wanted these buildings to be saved. Many years ago I wrote the following couplets about lighthouses. “A lonely guide guards the shore where the big ships travel most/where the red lights and the green lights pass close to the rocky coast/their beacons should not fade away because the government can’t see them, tankers/freighters, tugs and tows so desperately need them.” That being said, it’s pretty clear about how I feel about lighthouses. Moreover, I applaud the folks on Block Island and the Vineyard for saving these reminders of our coastal heritage.
Another part of my busman’s holiday was taking the Chappy Ferry all the way over to the island of Chappaquiddick. (It’s a one-minute ferry boat ride.) Again, I usually do the same drill. I’ll drive out to Dyke Bridge and look at the ocean, walk, and read. On this trip to Chappaquiddick, however, I took the road less travelled — it made all the difference. Rather than go straight to Dyke Bridge, I took a right — I know, I live on the edge — and ended up at a place called Wasque, pronounced “way-skwee.” It sits on the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick.
This is part of 1,000 acres of preserved land to be used for the public’s enjoyment in perpetuity. Moreover, the wind and sea does a daily tap dance on this place, and erosion has no bounds — sea changes. I was the only guy there on that particular day, and I ended up hanging out and exploring the beach and evaluating the magnitude of erosion. I learned many things that day while actively doing nothing at this raw and unbridled mass of sand and scrub.
In 2007, a storm breached the barrier beach at Norton’s Point. As a result, the ocean made its way toward Wasque Point. I found out that where I was wandering there once stood a boardwalk. The ocean claimed this after a breach, and the erosion accelerated. A guy built his house on a bluff near Wasque — a big house. As a result of the sea change generated by the breach at Norton Point Beach, the guy had to move his house. The other thing I figured was that the beyond the washed out boardwalk, at least 100 yards of barrier beach simply disappeared. I guess the lesson learned here is that building too close to the ocean facing southeast isn’t such a good idea. This place is a constant work-in-progress because of the many moods of Mother Nature.
In the picture that goes with this column, my wife and I are standing in front of the Gay Head Lighthouse. This picture was taken in 2011. Note how close the lighthouse is to the edge of the cliffs at Gay Head. Before the move of the lighthouse began, it was 46 feet from the edge of the cliff. Sea changes dictated that the lighthouse, built in 1854, had to be moved — quickly. The move was a delicate process. The brick lighthouse was hoisted onto a dolly track — like they use for camera work in movies – and was rolled back in an arc heading toward the southeast. It now sits safely at a distance of 135 feet from its original station. Prior planning and precise engineering ruled the day.
In August 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a law to protect the outer beaches of Cape Cod. This law put aside a substantial portion of our National Seashore, to protect it from development. The Nauset Lighthouse had to be moved in the 1990s. President Kennedy had good intentions; however, nature simply did what nature does with the sea, sand, and wind — the shoreline kept moving. In a little over 50 years, approximately 60 feet of shoreline has disappeared. This keeps surveyors and chart makers very busy. This part of the cape is exposed to the same wave angles as the folks on the island Chappaquiddick.
Sea change is all around us, and as coastal dwellers we can’t help but notice. The wind farm off Block Island is an obvious example. This is an ambitious sea change to say the least, and there are folks who designed the hardware, and calculated the math to make this become a reality. Finally, the ocean is a harsh and relentless environment, and only time will tell regarding the success of the project — many people are paying close attention. We have the hard science, but we also have Mother Nature who as we know can be fickle — sometimes without warning. As of this writing, the region is bracing for a sea change called a Nor’easter.