Captain Joe: Keeping Point Robinson’s light burning bright

Visiting the Point Robinson Lighthouse with Joe Wubbold is an education. A retired Coast Guard Captain, he loves showing visitors the lighthouse and its rare Fresnel lens.

Wubbold’s adventurous life prepared him well for his current role as the president of the board of the Keepers of Point Robinson. Now retired as Chief of Operations for the Coast Guard, Wubbold is an enthusiastic educator, whose passions range from the Antarctic to Cambridge University.

Wubbold’s family moved often when he was growing up. His father’s work for Standard Oil took the family to Aruba, Mobile, Ala., and Virginia. After graduating from high school in Washington, D.C., Wubbold received an appointment to the Coast Guard Academy, where he found a home and his life’s work.

“As soon as I went through the gate at the Academy I knew I was in the right place,” he remembered. “And it stayed that way the whole 34 years.”

Soon after graduating, Wubbold assumed command of his first ship.

“It became clear to me after I’d had my first command, that this was the part of the service that I wanted to keep doing,” he said.

He commanded a series of six ships, the last one an icebreaker. He served as Chief of Operations for the 13th Coast Guard District — the Pacific Northwest — which included oversight of all aids to navigation. His last assignment was Chief of Ice Operations, which gave him oversight over the Arctic, Antarctic and the American Great Lakes.

A reluctant retiree, Wubbold faced an adjustment period after leaving the Coast Guard.

“I didn’t want to be retired,” he admitted. “I did not retire well. It took me a couple of years to figure it out.”

He married for the second time, and traveled to England with his wife Mary. Their visit included a day trip that changed their lives. On the icebreaker, he’d taken researchers from the Scott Polar Institute of Cambridge University to study the Antarctic, and he wanted to see the Institute. While they were there, someone suggested that he take the course himself.

Today, Wubbold describes himself as “an Antarctican.” More than just someone who has lived in the Antarctic, Wubbold explained that the term implies someone who is committed to the ideals of the Antarctic treaty. As an Antarctican, Wubbold believes the Antarctic should be preserved for the benefit of all mankind; its resources and wildlife untouched except for carefully monitored research.

At Cambridge University, Wubbold discovered his “intellectual home.” He earned a master’s of philosophy in Polar Studies, and stayed on to manage construction of the Shakelton Memorial Library. Despite his education as a shipboard engineer, he’d never practiced engineering, but he found that his experience gave him the skills to organize this project. He was a member of the university, experienced in working with mercurial people.

“I refreshed my recollection of how to read blueprints, and it turned out to be a very successful project,” he said.

After almost four years in England, Wubbold and his wife came home in 1998. They’d sold their old house in Issaquah before going to the United Kingdom, and after a search they bought a home on Vashon. Today they enjoy visits from their six children and numerous grandchildren, as well as friends from Cambridge.

Looking for a way to give back to the community, “which is both a family custom and a military custom,” Wubbold found the Keepers of Point Robinson.

The lighthouse and adjoining park on Maury Island are owned by the Coast Guard, and leased to the Vashon Park District. Under the agreement, the park district is responsible for taking care of the site, other than the technical maintenance of the lighthouse and signal. Wubbold remembers sitting on the porch of one of the buildings with “a small fledgling volunteer group, talking about how we were going to get this thing going.”

The volunteer keepers have taken on the role of restoring the park’s buildings, improving the grounds and organizing events. They’ve accomplished a lot. Using mostly their own labor, supported by Island contractors and park district staff, the keepers have restored the old lighthouse keeper’s quarters, part of the assistant keeper’s quarters and the old barn. Picnic tables have been added, and the grounds made more attractive. The two keepers’ quarters are now available for rental through the Vashon Park District. The group sponsors Kite Day on the beach in late spring, and a December open house when the buildings are opened to visitors.

The jewel of Point Robinson is Fresnel lens, which was manufactured in France around 1908 and installed in the lantern room in 1915. Open to visitors on Sundays, the lens is the pinnacle of what Wubbold called “early Victorian technology, which can hardly be improved upon.”

It’s a magnificent thing; a heavy crown of brass, inset with large curved prisms that capture 90 percent of the light source and focus it so it can be seen from 15 miles away. Originally lit with kerosene, the lens operates today on a standard halogen bulb and is too bright to look at up close.

Until earlier this year, the Fresnel lens was the signal for Point Robinson. Recently the Coast Guard replaced it — after more than 90 years of service — with a standard plastic signal, which is inexpensive and replaceable. Wubbold influenced the Coast Guard to keep the original Fresnel light in place, while the new signal was placed outdoors, unlike most lighthouses, where the Fresnel lens has been removed or placed on a lower level.

Though Wubbold admits he’s sad the old lamp has been replaced, he made sure that the Fresnel lens can still be lit for visitors. And should the new signal fail, a few minutes’ work can restore the Fresnel lens to the lighhouse’s characteristic, a double flash every 12 seconds, providing a backup light.

When children visit the lighthouse, Wubbold shows a warmer side. He asks questions, encouraging children to guess about the light’s rainbows and what the small room downstairs was used for.

One of his favorite activities is an annual visit when “the second-graders spend a day out here with Captain Joe at the light.” A few years ago three little girls decided there was a ghost in the old kerosene storage room, and Wubbold encouraged all the children to have a look. He smiled at the memory.

“So now they all want to look,” he said. “Last year I had eight or nine sightings.”

Adults, too, are encouraged to ask questions and hazard guesses about what they see in the lighthouse. Wubbold’s depth of learning emerged in response to visitors’ questions about the light, its optics, navigation and the Island.

He didn’t really want to pose for pictures, but his reflection in the glass of the Fresnel light captured him in his element — surrounded by water and fine technology — sharing the value of this rare place, this hundred-year-old light.

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