Help wanted: San Pablo Bay lighthouse keeper
Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Two people on a tiny, isolated island, their only means of escape to the mainland a 20-minute boat ride through the mist. Plot of a horror movie? Nope. It's a description of one of the more unusual job openings in the Bay Area and maybe the United States: lighthouse keeper and bed-and-breakfast proprietor on East Brother Island, a 1-acre outcropping in San Pablo Bay.
The nonprofit group that oversees the beacon and hotel is looking for a couple to take over duties on the island starting Nov. 1, doing everything from cooking breakfast and ferrying guests to occasionally blasting the foghorn.
If it all sounds romantic, there are some important caveats: Applicants must have a U.S. Coast Guard commercial boating license, eschew pizza delivery and enjoy the company of, well, seagulls. They must also relish hard work. Four days out of the week, the three-story Victorian bed and breakfast hosts up to five couples who pay from $295 to $415 a night for a gourmet breakfast, four-course dinner and ferry service to and from the island.
The innkeepers must keep track of the business' paperwork, make weekly trips ashore for groceries and other supplies and ensure that the foghorn and flashing Fresnel light in the 1874 lighthouse are working. They're paid a total of from $60,000 to $100,000 a year.
"It's a fantastic experience and most people wouldn't trade it for anything. But usually they can only do it for so long and then they move on," said Tom Butt, president of the East Brother Light Station board, the outfit that manages the Coast Guard-owned island.
In the three decades since the volunteer board took over the island's upkeep and opened the bed and breakfast, people from a variety of backgrounds have taken up residence in the small one-bedroom innkeepers' cottage.
Some were just out of college, others middle-aged. Babies have been born; couples split up. One common denominator is the length of stay.
While one stint ended after only eight months and another lasted five years, most innkeepers stay two or three years.
Back to reality
Current innkeepers Ed and Anne Witts came to the island two years ago from Belgium, where Anne Witts, 50, was a flight attendant. When they motor away from East Brother Island for the last time in October, they plan to renovate their Pittsburg home and spend time on their 48-foot sailboat.
The couple say they've enjoyed the seclusion, but overseeing the island inn required many 80-hour workweeks.
"It's a very cool job to have," said Ed Witts, 55. "But it's a lot of work. Our two days off are not real days off."
East Brother Island has electricity, cell phone reception and Internet access, but other amenities are harder to come by. Obviously there are no coffee shops, movie theaters or restaurants. And every drop of water is precious - the island relies wholly on a 70,000-gallon cistern that collects rainwater. Guests aren't allowed showers unless they stay a second night.
Reborn as an inn
Of course, that's part of the charm. Amid the hypnotic sound of waves, birds and foghorn, visitors and innkeepers alike can pretend they've traveled back to the late 1800s when the U.S. Lighthouse Service built the first structures to help guide boats between San Francisco Bay and Mare Island and the delta.
For decades, lighthouse keepers maintained the complex. But about 1970, when the Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service and installed an automated light and modern foghorn, year-round caretakers became unnecessary.
The island was abandoned for about 10 years before a group of preservationists got permission from the Coast Guard to renovate and maintain the lighthouse. Income from the bed and breakfast pays for the island's maintenance and the innkeepers' salary.
Butt said the board has only had to fire one innkeeper - a man whose wife left him. His mother moved to the island to help run the bed and breakfast. That situation didn't last long. One night, the innkeeper left a hotel full of guests and took the island's only boat to San Francisco to go salsa dancing with his girlfriend.
"That was unusual," Butt said. "Most of the time there are no hard feelings. The innkeepers go on with their lives and stay in touch. Some even come back to volunteer because they enjoyed it so much."
How to apply
To download a job application, go to www.sfgate.com/ZKEA. Applicants will have to show proof of a Coast Guard license.
For more information about the East Brother Light Station, go to www.ebls.org.
E-mail Kelly Zito at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle