Lighted beacon shines the way home

Caymanian families once depended heavily on the sea for their survival; lighted beacons were placed in strategic points around the island to aid mariners in navigation. 

“These guided lights was also used during World War II to spot submarines or other hostile ships entering Cayman waters,” said retired immigration officer and seaman Rupert Ebanks. 

Mr. Ebanks lives just down the road from the Boatswain Bay beacon and recalls as a little boy playing in the area and using the beacon light while fishing from the ironshore. 

The Boatswain beacon is located at the top of Rocky Pond Road in a residential area in the northwest part of the island of Grand Cayman. It is a 20-foot skeletal tower on a concrete base. A light was first established in this area in 1930, but the date of construction of the current beacon is not known. 

“I recall the old lighthouse being put there for the safety of mariners because Boatswain Bay is flanked by ironshore,” said Mr. Ebanks. “I think it was placed there during the time Allen Wolsey Cardinall was police commissioner of the island. 

At 81, Mr. Ebanks recalls the old beacon being set on a concrete foundation with a frame like the one in South Sound. The light was automatic, run by battery, and flashed every minute. It was about two stories high and right at the top there was a lookout deck. “During the British Home Guard service in the 1940s, it was used for spotting German ships. I don’t think any ships were discovered passing that area,” Mr. Ebanks said. 

Mr. Ebanks said a small population lived in the Boatswain Bay area at the time. Fifty yards away from the beacon was the old West Bay schoolhouse, which he said was built in 1939. He said the old school was torn down some years ago, after which children attended school in the West Bay Town Hall. From time to time, other people used the building, but other than that it was locked up. 

“There were no street lights in the area those days, just a foot path and the light from the beacon could be seen as far as 12 miles off West Bay,” he said. 

Cayman does not have any traditional lighthouses. However, there are several historic beacons regarded locally as lighthouses. Aids to navigation in the islands are maintained and operated by the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands. 

Reported in the Caymanian Weekly on Aug. 17, 1966, under the headline “Beacon in operation” was the following: 

“Installation of a non-directional radio beacon with a minimum range of 300 miles and a maximum of 800-1,000 miles has recently been completed on a piece of land previously owned by Dr. Roy McTaggart on Walkers Road. 

“Ideally it should be situated 3 miles from the threshold of the runway. This one is 7,832 feet away. 

“We learn from Mr. Carl Godet that this beacon is owned and operated by International Aeradio for the Cayman Islands Government. 

“The total cost of the mast, transmitting equipment and generating plant amounts to $16,870. 

“This beacon came into operation officially at 6 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1966 and is fully automatic. It has two 1,000 watt transmitters with an automatic change-over system so that if one transmitter fails the other one cuts in immediately, and also an emergency stand-by power plant in case the main supply fails, the emergency one will take over. The coordinates are 19.00° 17 minutes north and 81.00° 23 minutes west. 

“Being 122 feet above sea level, it serves as a radio navigational aid for planes flying in the western Caribbean and will also be useful for navigators of ships with direction finding equipment. 

“The power of the beacon is 20 times greater than the previous one and although the company has erected a barbed wire fence around the beacon, people in the area are earnestly requested to keep children away as it is very dangerous, having 15,000 volts radiating through the tower which can cause immediate death on contact.” 

Rupert Ebanks stands on the spot in West Bay where the first beacon was erected, just across the road from the new one. - Photo: Jewel Levy
Rupert Ebanks stands on the spot in West Bay where the first beacon was erected, just across the road from the new one. – Photo: Jewel Levy