Personal Notes: On Becoming a Lighthouse Innkeeper

We wanted to see if the lifestyle of a lighthouse innkeeper could 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 keep the light station active.

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

Arriving at the island

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

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

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

After the introductions, our host started the engines and left the port for a short 10-minute drive to the island.

He immediately informed us of what to expect when we got to the dock. He described how we would be required to climb a very vertical stainless steel pool ladder that runs from the deck of the ship 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 a reservation if you are physically unable to climb a ladder. Also, the island unfortunately cannot comply with the ADA.

Island buildings and facilities

The one-acre island has two old buildings plus a Victorian lighthouse from 1874. The old work shed has been converted into a cozy innkeepers’ cabin, and the other outbuilding houses the machinery needed to power the foghorn.

The island has electrical power supplied by a submarine cable from the mainland and a self-contained water system containing approximately 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, showers are not available for guests staying just one night. No one seemed to mind the inconvenience.

After gathering our photographic equipment and walking up the steep ramp between the pier and the island, the Captain gave us a tour of the first building we found, which houses the machinery to operate the foghorn. For our benefit, he started the diesel generator and gave us a live performance from the horns.

Becoming an island innkeeper

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

How many people would love to have 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, this is how many.

We are told that the number of applicants for the job is usually large, but there are significant factors that knock out the innkeeper’s application.

One of the applicants must be an excellent cook and capable of preparing and presenting food for a table of ten.

Another qualification is that one of the applicants must have a Coast Guard commercial boat operator license.

Lastly, the two prospective innkeepers must be charming. Now we are getting somewhere.

About work

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

Preparing for the guests

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

On Thursday morning, they return by boat to the island with supplies, unload their cargo onto a large wire cart waiting at the dock, and take it 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 afternoon, promptly at 4pm, the designated captain / innkeeper returns to the marina dock at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor to board guests on Thursday night.

Upon arrival on the island, hosts offer a tour, champagne hors d’oeuvres, and show guests to their rooms.

Visitors then have plenty of 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 arrive too early, but a sumptuous gourmet breakfast would await all the guests. Pity for the overnight guests who must now return to the mainland to resume their daily lives.

After transferring the guests and their luggage to the mainland dock, the captain returns to the island to help his partner 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 the tasks that could not be completed during the workweek.

Later, the innkeepers load the clothes along with the empty bottles and garbage into the wire cart on the island. The cart is pulled to the opposite end of the island and hooked up and lowered with a winch to the boat waiting on the island. The innkeepers leave for the port, unload the cargo and begin a well-deserved Tuesday of rest.

Not for everyone

The innkeepers at East Brother Light Station live a romantic life filled with congratulations, fresh air, sunshine, sea birds and seals. There are probably several of our readers who would switch places if they could. Life is short, you might want to give it a try! However, we decided not to.

Happy travels!

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