by Bridget FitzPatrick
Sure, the peak season for boat tours of our lovely bays is winding to a close, but it’s never too early to plan for next year’s water tour of the Delaware Bay’s Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. Tickets sell out every year according to William “Red” Moulinier, board member of Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation (DRBLF), the local nonprofit organization that maintains the iconic white lighthouse seen at the tip of the breakwater just of the tip of Cape Henlopen.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in 2023’s final voyage of this exclusive tour. Two sizeable boats filled with 40 or so passengers included everyone from lighthouse buffs to locals curious to get a better look. And there is no better way to explore and learn about the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse than to have a knowledgeable guide representing the organization (DRBLF) to chat about the history and mariner’s lore of the unique harbor’s history.
Cape Henlopen’s waters, where the mighty Atlantic meets the wide berth of Delaware Bay is filled with fascinating tales of pirates, espionage, maritime disasters and more. Its strategic location opens up worldwide commerce, and has for centuries since the first European settlers discovered and settled it – long after indigenous tribes had also discovered its wonders.
Seafaring vessels over the centuries since have battled and negotiated the ever-changing climate and sometimes deadly shoals of the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Countless ships and smaller vessels unfamiliar with the terrain and weather perished in the waters, and efforts to assist, such as lightships often failed as ships became larger and more susceptible to wrecks in the sometimes shallow waters.
Finally, in 1825, the US Congress the initial construction of a breakwater off the cape to create a safe harbor in stormy weather. Although it took more than four decades to construct, it still wasn’t eventually sufficient as a haven for large ships. A second breakwater was then built further out in the junction of the bay and ocean, and was finally completed in 1901, aptly named the National Harbor of Refuge.
The iconic Harbor of Refuge lighthouse we see today was originally constructed in 1926 after the failure of similar but less seaworthy structures. Operated by the US Coast Guard until 1999, the lighthouse was then obtained and maintained by the nonprofit organization formed the same year: the Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation. Ever since, the DRBLF – an all-volunteer organization has done everything to sustain the structure, including painting, constructing a new dock and adjusting structural needs as needed. It is still operational, although it is no longer manned full time.
The Army Corps of Engineers maintains the 1.5-mile long breakwater – an engineering feat that still requires perpetual maintenance due to the often harsh weather conditions of the Atlantic.
Which is the reason why this year, the ticketed annual event to visit and actually enter the lighthouse was unfortunately limited to a “drive-by.” The Army Corps had determined early in 2023 that the weather-damaged breakwater needed major structural repairs (not the lighthouse itself), and it was deemed unsafe for us, the boat visitors.
Last year, I was fortunate to not only get tickets for the tour, but was included in the rare opportunity to climb the steps of the lighthouse, tour the exhibits within and take in the breathtaking views of a unique junction: the mighty Atlantic and the mouth of the Delaware Bay just off our beloved Cape Henlopen. This year, our tour was limited to visiting the lighthouse by water only, and I have to say, once you got to its majestic structure, it seemed lonely as if it longed for true visitors to share its history and its views.
Reconstruction and repairs of the monstrous breakwater were evident during the tour. Red, our effervescent tour guide assured us that it should be completed this year in time for 2024’s season of these coveted tours.
For your own curiosity or to entertain guests on this unique opportunity to tour the historic Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, be sure to get yourself on the organization’s mailing list and pay close attention to their announcement of their spring and summer tours. I happened to nab four tickets for the last tour of the season in early September, and that was only one week after their season announcement.
All photos from the website: http://delawarebaylights.org/