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Challenges of running lighthouse inn at sea

Posted Aug. 02, 2015, at 5:54 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 03, 2015, at 6:36 a.m.

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BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Change sheets, make beds, sweep floors, stock the larder. For most innkeepers, the chore list is a nonstop routine.

However, when your inn is perched atop a 2-acre rock in deep water, nothing is predictable.

For Heather Graham and Mark Zinkiewicz, resident keepers at The Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse, the list includes all of the above plus a mariner’s handbook of cautionary safeguards.

The rundown goes like this: check tidal charts, review weather radar, make sure the boat is ready, the gangway secure and the lighthouse shipshape. Simultaneously, they lay out an opulent welcome spread of tea, port, cheese, apricots and olives.

“We are living our lives by the ebb and flow of the tides,” Zinkiewicz said.

The inn is located on an islet a half-mile from the tip of Southport, where life itself can be rocky. But whenever the Florida couple who moved here in April to run the guest house get stressed, they have a fast remedy.

“One of us tells the other, ‘Look out the window,’” Graham said. The 360-degree view of lapping waves and drifting schooners settles their nerves.

This is the second season for the preserved lighthouse, built in 1892, under its new incarnation as a boutique inn. The Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse promises luxury accommodations a short boat ride from shore. It’s an anti-Gilligan’s Island. Instead of roughing it, guests have high thread-count sheets, access to a deep wine cellar and a lobster bake prepared for them on the intimate island.

Sounds romantic and filled with mystique. But in the hospitality world, this gig is a rarity. Living in a working lighthouse, these hosts do double duty as the keepers of the flame — a beacon of lost ships. The working lighthouse, with a lens maintained by the Coast Guard, is a warning and a guide.

“While we are at the front door of Boothbay Harbor, we are at the backdoor of the Atlantic,” Zinkiewicz, a licensed boat captain from Florida, said.

Such a wild setting comes with challenges and a new set of skills. Chief among them is reading the sea and the sky. They have to be prepared to batten down the hatches and call off long-planned vacations on a whim if Mother Nature misbehaves. Scenarios that would throw the most experienced innkeeper for a loop are par for the course.

“Under certain weather conditions, we can’t transport if the seas are rough,” said Graham, who describes herself as “very much a Southern girl.”

“We have lots of intense fog that can come in very quickly,” Zinkiewicz added. “We try not to run the boats if there is a small craft advisory.”

So far this season, only a few getaways were dashed because of foul weather. One would-be guest had a complete washout. “We do everything we can to get the guests out here, but safety is the top priority,” Graham, a first-time innkeeper, said.

To keep things running smoothly, relief keeper Leslie Cooke is the couple’s lifeline. The captain based on shore ferries guests to and fro and runs last-minute errands.

With a busy schedule of lodgers coming and going and both suites fully booked through October, the couple are tied to the island, working seven days per week.

“If there is one thing we wish, it’s to have one day off a week,” said Graham, whose first trip to Maine was a few months ago, when she was hired to oversee the inn with her partner.

Run as a nonprofit, the inn generates funds to help sustain the newly restored lighthouse, which The Cuckolds Fog Station and Light Signal Council maintains. To the uninitiated, the inn is run like any high-end retreat. Only with ever-changing logistics.

Food deliveries arrive by boat on Thursdays. Weekenders come on Fridays. Fortunately, with Cooke’s help, delivering a bag of forgotten mussels in a pinch keeps things humming.

With systems in place and smart planning, the innkeepers ensure the island never runs out of essentials — because it’s no simple hop to the store to replenish.

“You don’t run out of milk,” said Graham, who bakes muffins, frittatas and voluminous gourmet breakfasts every morning in the well-equipped kitchen. Two refrigerators and a freezer help.

The idyllic setting requires constant monitoring. Vigilance and forethought are crucial.

“We have a geography issue,” Mark said. “We have to get everything from Southport,” a long swim or short boat ride away.

Two weekends ago, Nancy Rager of New Jersey surprised her husband, Richard, with a lighthouse escape for their 40th anniversary. On their way out in a motor boat with two other guests, the couple was equal parts excited and nervous. They signed waivers, acknowledging potential risks of uneven rocks and floating docks, and took cellphone photos as the lighthouse came into view.

“When I heard we were going to be sequestered on an island at sea, I thought Alcatraz,” Roger said. “That’s why I wore stripes,” his wife quipped.

An hour later as the Ragers sipped white wine on a patio surrounded by sailboats on the calm Atlantic, imprisonment this was not.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Nancy Rager said, taking in the view. “This is insurmountable. I really didn’t expect it to be so awesome.”

To make it awesome, the hosts were in high gear behind the scenes.

As they awaited dinner, Zinkiewicz trekked down to the rocks to harvest seaweed for the lobster bake. Threats of a rain shower loomed and plans to transport this reporter back to land were waylaid.

“Mother Nature can be unforgiving,” Zinkiewicz said. “But that’s the beauty of it all.”

Despite the extra effort and rolling with the punches, the innkeepers — like their awestruck guests — are checking a big item off their bucket list.

To Zinkiewicz, “living in a lighthouse is a lifelong dream.”

Made all the sweeter with their status as temporary stewards.

“I get to live in one of the most beautiful lighthouses on the Maine Coast and don’t have to pay for taxes,” he said. “It’s magical.”

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