Nick Korstad had dragged his brother and his brother's girlfriend to nearly two dozen lighthouses on their meandering trip down the coast from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles. By the time they reached Port Hueneme, his traveling buddies had enjoyed about all the lighthouses they could stand.
But Korstad, a 21-year-old college student, was still enthusiastic--particularly because he was among the first waves of lighthouse fanciers allowed into Port Hueneme's previously off-limits tower. A lighthouse has been there since 1874, but the Coast Guard opened it to the public only last month.
High up in a domed chamber called the lantern room, Korstad looked out at pelicans skimming the water and tugs guiding in the Sea Pearl, a freighter hauling tons of wood pulp from Brazil. Inches away, the lighthouse beam brushed across his face as it scanned the horizon.
"I recommend Hueneme," he said. "I'm so surprised they let people all the way up to the top. At most lighthouses, they don't."
At the far end of the highly restricted port, the lighthouse is open only on the third Saturday of each month. Tourists park in a lot just beyond the port's guardhouse and are taken to the tower in a Coast Guard van.
It looks nothing like the picturesque beacons on New England calendars. At 48 feet tall, it's dwarfed by the smokestacks of vessels chugging into the Port of Hueneme, the only deep-water harbor between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Set on an asphalt lot, the lighthouse looks like a California mission on a low-fat diet, built along the hard, stark lines of an architectural style called Art Moderne.
But it's still a lighthouse, and there is a growing breed of people who are crazy about lighthouses. Some build vacations around them, signing on for lighthouse tours from Maine to Macao. Others settle for weekend jaunts to working facilities like Port Hueneme's.
For Wayne Wheeler, head of the San Francisco-based U.S. Lighthouse Society, the beacons are the stuff of poetry.
"You're out there with the lap of the wave and the caw of the gull," said Wheeler, a former Coast Guardsman who founded the society in 1984. "Lighthouses were the last thing the sailor saw when he left terra firma, and the first thing he saw coming back. They were a light against the dark, a hope against the dangerous sea."
At Port Hueneme, aficionados troop up three sets of stairs and a curved red ladder for an admiring look at the guts of the operation--the lens.
Most lighthouses have switched to plastic lenses. But Port Hueneme still uses an exquisitely beveled, brass-encased set of glass prisms called a Fresnel lens. About the size and shape of Darth Vader's face mask, it's 105 years old and would be a museum piece if it weren't a constant guide for banana boats, oil freighters and Sunday sailors.
Designed by a Frenchman named Augustin Fresnel, such lenses are still known for their beauty, complexity and dazzling efficiency.
"Making them is a lost art," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer John R. Hurst, who is responsible for overseeing 11 lighthouses, 20 foghorns and 144 beacons from San Diego to Monterey. "To this day, no one has come up with a better way of concentrating diffused light into a focused beam."
On the California coast there are 28 active lighthouses, each with a distinct signal noted on navigators' charts. Originally fueled by whale oil, Hueneme's light flashes white once every 30 seconds. Visible for 22 miles out at sea, it's essential for boaters without fancy navigational devices and a welcome backup for skippers whose satellite-based systems may be balky, Hurst said.
The first lighthouse at Hueneme was built in 1874. A rambling Victorian home flanked by ornate sun porches, it was closed and sent across the harbor by barge in 1941--the same year the current, simpler structure opened. Used as a yacht club headquarters for a while, the original structure was razed after years of decay. The lens from the old structure was placed in the new one.
The lighthouse was automated in 1972, ending a century of on-site lighthouse keepers. Crews would come by to tend the mechanism, but the building's paint peeled and its fixtures rusted. Finally deciding to preserve the building, the Coast Guard authorized a $250,000 face-lift completed last year to make the tower ready for visitors.
They are greeted these days by a Pasadena couple--Kim Castrobran and his fiancee, Rose Ambicki. The two joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary just to care for the lighthouse.
"I'm a lighthouse nut by osmosis," Castrobran said, pointing out that his father spends his free time tending the one at Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Port Hueneme's "is a work in progress," he said, looking over the old photos of the tower recently mounted on the walls and the old lighthouse gear recently put on display. "The most surprising thing is that so many people don't even know it exists."
LaVerne Dornberger isn't one of them.