The Life of a Lighthouse Keeper: What Do They Actually Do?

a lighthouse keeper standing next to a lighthouse

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The life of a lighthouse keeper sounds glamorous to many. It’s a job where you get to live in close connection with the sea and get plenty of time to appreciate its power. However, a lighthouse isn’t signaling to ships all day every day, so what are the keepers doing the rest of the time?

The Work Life of a Lighthouse Keeper

A lighthouse keeper’s primary job is to keep the lighthouse operating as powerfully and smoothly as possible. When the buildings used paraffin vapor, this job consisted of ensuring the lantern stayed lit and optimally bright and winding the rotator so the light gave off its unique identifying pattern. The advent of electricity does mean operators can work from more comfortable spots thanks to a monitor that indicates if the power is working, but they still need a sharp eye.

When they aren’t working directly with the light, lighthouse workers need to keep the structure clean. All the brass and windows required polishing so visibility inside and outside is constant. Touching up the lens was more critical when lighthouses used wicks that could dirty it, but it’s still an essential duty that can take up to a day to complete.

Other jobs might include painting the lighthouse, cleaning the living quarters and getting seaweed out of the boat landing. They also must look out for people in distress and log materials used and weather conditions every day.

What Level of Education is Required?

There are currently over 400,000 people working in the maritime industry in the U.S. alone. The maritime industry includes any position connected to the sea or major waterways, with roles ranging everywhere from professional fishermen to naval architects and nautical scientists. Maritime careers have a wide variety of requirements depending on the level of in-depth knowledge the position involves.

For lighthouse keepers, no direct formal education is typically required. Instead, the position relies largely on your willingness to work. Lighthouse keepers need to be at least 18 years old, be able to self-regulate their own workflow and manage their time wisely and be physically capable enough to fulfill their duties. However, a heavy passion for and knowledge of maritime navigation can be a huge benefit for any position within the maritime industry.

How Much Free Time Do Lighthouse Keepers Have?

Keepers work in small groups so they can rotate shifts. The hours in military time are:

  • 0200 – 0600
  • 0600 – 1000
  • 1000 – 1400
  • 1400 – 1800
  • 1800 – 2200
  • 2200 – 0200

Since they worked in groups of three, that meant one person would work for four hours, take the next eight off, then finish their work day with another four-hour shift. This was so no one person had to stay up all night maintaining the lantern. Ideally, a lighthouse keeper would then have 16 hours to sleep, eat, perform smaller work around the facility or do anything else they’d like.

However, things ramp up if there’s fog. They’ll start working double duty, spending the first four hours of their shift tending the fog signal and the next four tending the light. An eight-hour shift suddenly turns into 16 hours of constant upkeep of the alert horn and communication with the mainland.

What Lighthouse Keepers Do With Their Downtime

So long as they stay on top of their duties, lighthouse keepers can do practically anything they want when they’re off the clock. For example, while they do get deliveries of food and supplies, some choose to grow fresh vegetables they’d otherwise have limited access to. Naturally, that means that individual would need to dedicate a chunk of their free time to garden upkeep, which might feel more like part of the workday if stores are low.

Back in the day, doing so was more of a necessity, especially if the operators brought their families along. More mouths to feed and finite supplies necessitated living off the land now and then, including raising livestock and fishing.

Modern technology obviously brings about many more comforts and entertainment. The processes are a bit different — there’s a minimum of two keepers at the structure, each working nine-hour shifts. Most of their day consists of weather reporting, lighthouse maintenance and landscaping, which they’ll do during the week.

Other than that, they can do whatever they choose. One current staff member says in the two months he’s been at a lighthouse, he’s read six books and put 90 hours into three Mass Effect games. He also spends time researching boating, marine life, the Coast Guard and content for his YouTube channel.

The life of a lighthouse keeper also provides the chance for more creative pursuits. Back in the 1800s, assistant lighthouse keeper Marie Israel made picture frames with shells and sold them to supplement the living her and her husband’s — the head keeper — wages. One example of these that resides at the Cabrillo National Monument displays a watercolor one of Israel’s children painted. All in all, as long as all their chores were done, those who tend lighthouses have many options to occupy themselves.

Do Lighthouse Keepers Make a Lot of Money?

According to ZipRecruiter, a lighthouse keeper can make more than $24 an hour. Those living in California are in luck — current rates hover around $30 an hour. The lower average end of the pay scale sits just under $20, while the top average is close to $28. Because they have such a critical job, employers thankfully often pay these workers closer to what they’re worth.

Not to mention, staff have a fair amount of time to make a living in addition to their lighthouse work. Remember the Israel family who got crafty together to pass the time? While not every hobby needs monetization, doing so while lighthouse tending offers an excellent opportunity to make some bonus cash.

Can Lighthouse Keepers Leave?

You’ve probably heard the stereotype of the isolated lighthouse worker who goes crazy because they’ve been alone with the sea for too long. However, that was often due to the mercury they were exposed to on the job. While some did get stuck for much longer than they should’ve been, an entire fleet of lighthouse keepers will work for six weeks at a time, followed by two weeks of leave at home.

So, if this new career path is starting to sound interesting but you’re worried about it taking a toll on your mind, ease those fears. Once again, technology has come to the rescue with automated ways to turn the light and switch out burnt bulbs. So long as you don’t mind a bit of loneliness and the occasional rough storm, you’ll likely do well.

Living the Life of a Lighthouse Keeper

A lighthouse keeper’s day to day does look a bit different from the typical employee’s. However, the way their days break up and the nature of the work appeals to many. If the waves have been calling to you and the lifestyle sounds manageable, see if there are any lighthouses nearby.

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