Ida Lewis: Gutsy lighthouse keeper who saved lives at sea

Ida Lewis: Gutsy lighthouse keeper who saved lives at sea

Ida Lewis: Gutsy lighthouse keeper who saved lives at sea

This is the first of Marine Café Blog’s new series of articles about women who have made an impact on society and maritime history. Their exemplary deeds, I trust, will serve to inspire women in the 21st century no matter their station in life. — BU

Ida Lewis (1842 – 1911) was a relatively small woman. According to some accounts, she was only five feet, two inches talll and weighed 115 lbs. But she was larger than life. During the years that she lived and worked at Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island, she saved 18 people from drowning. She did not keep a record of her rescues, and the figure is thought to be as high as 25.

Uncommon bravery

Ms Lewis made her first recorded rescue when she was 16 years old, plucking four boys from a capsized boat. However, her feats of derring-do went unheralded until she saved two soldiers on 29th March 1869. She was 27 at the time. Harpers Weekly (31st July 1869 edition) described the incident in its cover story about Lewis:

She was quite unwell at the time, suffering from a severe cold. The soldiers had started from Newport for Fort Adams in a small boat under the guidance of a boy who professed to be capable of managing it. They had proceeded about half the distance when the boat was swamped, and the boy perished immediately., Miss Lewis’s mother discovered the position of the soldiers, who were clinging to the boat in an almost exhausted condition. She immediately reported the fact to her daughter, and the latter rushed out without covering either on her head or feet, save a pair of stockings, and jumping into the boat she called to her younger brother to go with and aid her. A fearful gale was raging at the time, and the management of a boat was extremely difficult, even to an experienced oarswoman like Ida. Nevertheless, the feat was accomplished, the men were dragged into the light-house, one of them being so much exhausted as to require much hard work before he could be restored to consciousness.

Photo of Ida Lewis, 1869

Ida Lewis to the rescue
Illustration in Ten American Girls from History 1917

Ms Lewis was skilled in rowing and swimming. She did not mind that others thought it was unladylike.

Ms Lewis quickly shot to national fame. She became the poster child for female fortitude, adulated by leading newspapers of the time. She received several awards, including the U.S. Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal. President Ulysses S. Grant and other promiment figures visited her at the family home on Lime Rock island.

A simple life, a rich legacy

By all indications, the plaudits and public attention did not change Ms Lewis as a person. Hers remained a simple life on a small island. But it was a heroic life throughout. she made her last recorded rescue at the age of 63, when she rushed out on a lifeboat to save a female friend who had fallen overboard from a boat.

Lime Rock Island in 1869, Illustration in Harper’s Weekly

Interior of Lime Rock Lighthouse — Ida Lewis at home, 1869
Engraving / illustration in Harper’s Weekly

Born on 25th February 1842, Ms Lewis served unofficially as lighthouse keeper at age 15 along with her mother. The latter became the official keeper after Ida’s father, the keeper at that time, suffered a stroke. In addition to helping tend the lighthouse, Ms Lewis took care of her disabled father and a seriously ill sister. She was appointed official keeper in 1879 after her mother passed away. She held the post until her own death in 1911.

Ida Lewis in her later years, c. 1900
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Her light shines on

The Lime Rock Lighthouse was first lit in 1854. For almost three-quarters of a century, it guided boats and sailors in Newport Harbour until its deactivation in 1927. But the light and the name of Ida Lewis have never been extinguished. Today, the lighthouse serves as home for the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.  

Ida Lewis Rock Light, formerly the Lime Rock Lighthouse, c. 1927
Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Ida Lewis Yacht Club, 2007
Photo by Wally Gobetz
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Thoughts about harbour pilots and Jacob’s ladder

Thoughts about harbour pilots and Jacob’s ladder

I have been curious about the “Jacob’s ladder”, the old name for the ladder used by pilots to get on board and disembark from a ship. Not wanting to remain ignorant of the subject, I did some research. The information I have gathered thus far is interesting. Indeed, it is food for thought.

“Jacob’s ladder” alludes to the ladder which Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, saw in a dream: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12 King James Version)

Jacob’s Dream, 1805
William Blake (English, 1757–1827)
Courtesy of the British Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Meaningful name for a ladder

A rope ladder with wooden rungs may not take anyone to Heaven. But climbing it is definitely no breeze. It takes time and a bit of struggling. Looking up, the pilot may get the feeling that he is reaching for the sky. In a sense, the pilotage profession is a Jacob’s ladder. One has to go through a number of rungs before he is appointed as a pilot. There are no angels to shorten the process of training and certification.

Pilot ladder, 2018
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ens. Samantha Penate

Jakobs ladder, 1711–1728
Anonymous Dutch artist
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Lost in the fog of Time

The true origin of the nautical Jacob’s ladder has been lost in the fog of Time. Searching for the informatiion on etymology websites yields frustrating results. Under the entry for “Jacob”, the Online Etymology Dictionary states that “Jacob’s ladder, in various transferred uses from 1733, is from Genesis xxviii.12″.  No reference is made at all to its marine application.

Jacob’s ladder is listed in Patterson’s Illustrated Nautical Dictionary, Unabridged (first published in 1891) with the following definition:

A ladder with rope sides and wooden rungs, used for getting into the lower rigging on vessels with very high bulwarks, and for getting up to the jack cross-trees the ladder hanging abaft the mast.

One can safely assume that the Bible-inspired name was in use long before Patterson’s dictionary came out. “Originally, the jacob’s ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships,” notes the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command website. Wikipedia identifies two types of Jacob’s ladder: the flexible hanging ladder and the kind found on square-rigged ships (pictured below):

Crew on Prince William climbing onto the main-top using the port Jacob’s ladder.
Photo by Pete Verdon
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) licence

Ringing out the old

The shipping world loves to ring out the old and ring in the new. Today, everyone — pilots, pilot’s associatons, the IMO, P&I clubs, and the maritime press—calls a pilot ladder a pilot ladder. Why associate it with a Hebrew patriarch and his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending the steps? In the mechanistic world of shipping, symbolism and archetypes have no place.

Somehow this saddens me. After all, what would shipping be without the enriching power of tradition?

Check out this interesting article:

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Why I am a big critic of today’s maritime press

Why I am a big critic of today’s maritime press

It sounds a bit ironic. I have been firing broadsides at the maritime press in Marine Café Blog. Yet, I myself was once an international shipping and ports journalist. That was a long time ago, when the internet was in its infancy and I had to dispatch stories to my UK editors by teletype.

But this is precisely the reason for my less-than-benign view of present-day maritime journalism. As the clichéd expression goes: been there, done that. The maritime press that I knew has changed, but not always for the better.

A dreary picture

Today, I see many reporters and editors doing the cut-and-paste routine. I see publications mindlessly mouthing the slogans of the International Maritime Organization and the campaign lines of the seafarer charities. Many have grown fat on press releases. The result is as conspicuous as an old man’s beer belly: an appalling uniformity in style and content.

How many interpretative and enterprising stories in a week or month are being served to readers? If it is not a press release disguised as news, it is a puff piece adulating some maritime character. Worse, some publications have done a bad job of reporting on important developments. One only has to take a look at the sloppy news reporting on the Philippine inspections conducted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

There are exceptions, of course, to this dreary picture of the maritime press. Some journalists still adhere to the traditional tenets of journalism. They cross-check their information. They try to analyse what is happening. And yes, they are not into licking the asses of those they write about.

Thanks to this small minority, today’s maritime press has not completely gone down the tubes.

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A powerful poem about the sea and the seagoing life

A powerful poem about the sea and the seagoing life

I have sometimes wondered: how many choose to be seafarers, not just for the money, but for love of the sea and the seagoing life? Like the ocean tide, the question rose up again in my mind when I recently came across a poem by Edward Clement Cruttwell (1888–1938), a Royal Navy lieutenant who served in World War I.

Simply called ‘Song’, the poem is included in Sea Songs and Other Verses by Cruttwell published in London in 1912. It is a short composition with just three stanzas totalling 18 lines. However, it delivers a poignant message in simple yet powerful and melodic language.

The speaker in the poem asks the sailors of yore to sing him “the witching melody” and the “eerie song” of the sea. He longs to hear them

Speak of the lands of sun,
    Of the grass that is always green,
Tell of the prowess you have won
    And the glories you have seen.

In the end, he acknowledges the fact that “it cannot be”. The age of sail and adventure is no more. The ultimate line drops like a heavy anchor falling into the water: “Alas! Romance is dead…”.

Cruttwell’s poem is really an elegy for the stout-hearted sailors of the past — when, as American writer George Davis put it in his autobiography, “wooden ships were manned and sailed by men of iron, and not as now, when iron ships are run by wooden men”.



You, who have loved the sea
     As only a sailor can,
Sing me the witching melody
     It wakes in the soul of Man;
Sing of the eerie song
     That heralds the treshing gale,
And the plaint that is borne along
     To the filling of the sail.

You, who have known the sea
     As only a sailor may,
Speak of the solemn melody
     Whispered at close of day;
Speak of the lands of sun,
     Of the grass that is always green,
Tell of the prowess you have won
     And the glories you have seen.

Ah, no! it cannot be, I said,
     Alas! Romance is dead …

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The last farewell: Four memorable sailor poems

The last farewell: Four memorable sailor poems

I have known a number of old salts who are no longer around. They have made their final voyage. To them I dedicate the following poems which are memorable on account of their moving imagery and heartfelt words. I trust that others will be touched as well by these beautiful verses.

The Old Sailor

by Margaret Elizabeth Sangster (American, 1838–1912)

I’ve crossed the bar at last, mates,
My longest voyage is done;
And I can sit here, peaceful,
And watch th’ setting sun
A-smilin’ kind of glad like
Upon the waves so free.
My longest voyage is done, mates,
But oh, the heart of me,
Is out where sea meets skyline!
My longest voyage is done. . . .
But — can I sit, in peace, mates,
And watch the settin’ sun?

For what’s a peaceful life, mates,
When every breeze so free,
When every gale a-blowin’,
Brings messages to me?
And is the sky so shinin’,
For all it’s golden sun,
To one who loves the sea, mates,
And knows his voyage is done?
And, can a year on land, mates,
Match with one day — at sea?
Ah, every wind a-singin’
Brings memory to me!

I’ve crossed the bar at last, mates,
My longest voyage is past,
And I must watch the sunset,
Must see it fade, at last.
My steps are not so light, mates,
As they were, years ago;
And sometimes, when I’m tired,
My head droops kind of low —
Yet, though I’m old and — weary,
The waves that dance so free,
Keep callin’ to my soul, mates,
And thrill the heart of me!

It tossed – and tossed –

by Emily Dickinson (American, 1830–1886)

It tossed – and tossed –
A little Brig I knew – o’ertook by Blast –
It spun – and spun –
And groped delirious, for Morn –

It slipped – and slipped –
As One that drunken – stept –
Its white foot tripped –
Then dropped from sight –

Ah, Brig – Good Night
To Crew and You –
The Ocean’s Heart too smooth – too Blue –
To break for You –

Bilbo’s Last Song (at the Grey Havens)

By J.R.R. Tolkien (English, 1892–1973)

Bilbo’s Last Song (at the Grey Havens) is a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien, written as a pendant to his fantasy The Lord of the Rings. It was first published in a Dutch translation in 1973, subsequently appearing in English on posters in 1974 and as a picture-book in 1990. [from]

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship’s beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I’ll find the heavens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains ever blest.

Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above my mast!

Si mi voz muriera en tierra (If my voice dies on land)

by Rafael Alberti (Spanish, 1902–1999)

The short and soulful Spanish poem is accompanied by my English translation.  The original text was made into a song by Alfredo González Vilela, a Galician singer-songwriter. Click here to play and download the song. — Barista Uno

Si mi voz muriera en tierra
llevadla al nivel del mar
y dejadla en la ribera.

Llevadla al nivel del mar
y nombardla capitana
de un blanco bajel de guerra.

¡Oh mi voz condecorada
con la insignia marinera:
sobre el corazón un ancla
y sobre el ancla una estrella
y sobre la estrella el viento
y sobre el viento la vela!

If my voice dies on land
take it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Take it down to the sea
and name her captain
of a white vessel of war.

Oh my voice adorned
with the sailor insignia:
an anchor over the heart
and above the anchor a star
and above the star the wind
and above the wind the sail!

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