B&B guests at restored Coast Guard island enjoy Bay Area views

05/25/2014 12:00 AM

05/25/2014 10:15 AM

Normally, the “commute” from the mainland at Point San Pablo to this idyllic Victorian bed-and-breakfast at a light station on a bump of an island in the San Francisco Bay is a placid 10 minutes, 15 tops. Richard Foregger, skipper of the Lucretia E, will fire up the twin Honda four-stroke engines and motor in to the dock, nodding knowingly when guests marvel that such an undiscovered gem even exists.

But one inclement winter afternoon, the wind gusted from the north and waves swelled as high as 6 feet. Dutifully, and perhaps a bit warily, Foregger secured luggage at his feet, made sure the guests for that night’s stay on the island had fastened their life jackets snugly, and only then shoved off.

“Imagine being at the dock, banging up and down on that boat,” said Foregger, former TV news producer turned innkeeper. “We had guests all loaded up, but once we got to that buoy (about halfway to the island), I realized it wasn’t happening. We went back to the dock. But when I realized Jude was still (on the island). I had to go back.”

Jude, being Jude Haukom, Foregger’s partner and co-innkeeper. He didn’t want to strand her all by her lonesome on the island, a gorgeous rock less than an acre in diameter that sparkles in the sun and allures when fog-shrouded, but maybe is a little scary in a gale with rain lashing the restored 1873 Coast Guard structure.

So he headed out once more into conditions that would have even the hardiest sailor humming the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. He braved the choppy water, soaked to the bone, circling the island for a good half-hour.

“I couldn’t make a landing,” he said. “I went back to the dock and had to leave her.”

While Foregger went back to Berkeley, where the couple lives when they’re not spending four days a week hosting guests on East Brother Island, Haukom was hardly fearful and actually a little excited to enjoy some solitude amid the maelstrom. A repertory actor before taking over innkeeper duties with Foregger two years ago, Haukom thought the conditions dramatic, downright Melvillean.

“I came outside, and there was this blowing, blowing wind like crazy,” she said. “I threw my arms up. Ah, tempest! I was waiting for some lightning to strike or something dramatic. I did love it.”

Then, she smiled sweetly at Foregger.

“But I’ve got to admit, it was the only night here when I’ve locked my door. I knew (the island) was secure and everything, but I pictured some big monster coming ashore.”

Despite a situation that resembled the plot of a B-horror movie, Haukon was happy to report that she spent a calm, uneventful night. The only thing that came ashore, besides the gulls that flit about on East Brother and its smaller sibling, the undeveloped West Brother Island, was Foregger the next morning, when the weather cleared.

That was the only time during the couple’s two-year tenure as caretakers for the bed-and-breakfast, licensed to the nonprofit East Brother Light Station Inc., from the Coast Guard, that they were unable to land.

Through rain, fog and brilliant sunshine, East Brother has served as an oasis from the bustle of Bay Area life, a vacation retreat that even many locals didn’t know existed.

“Some people,” Foregger said, “may have lived in San Francisco all their lives but go right by this place.”

Located in San Pablo Strait slightly northeast of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, East Brother is easy for commuters to miss amid the scattered rocky outcroppings jutting from the water. More-observant bridge drivers might wonder what a tan Victorian house with a red tile roof is doing perched on a giant rock in the distance, but the sight is gone in a flash and can’t be viewed easily once they arrive to either East or North bay shorelines.

Certainly, East Brother is neither as recognizable nor iconic as Alcatraz or Angel islands, twin pillars of touristic curiosity closer to The City, but East Brother is a weekend getaway option for those seeking a slower pace, a contemplative experience, sans Wi-Fi, cable and Netflix.

Disembarking at Point San Pablo after an unseasonably warm evening spent in one of the island’s five bedrooms, guests Buck and Mary Marcussen gushed about their experience of being at sea and isolated in nature yet close enough to check out traffic conditions on the bridge.

“What is it like?” Buck asked. “It’s interesting. You feel the current that comes in and out of the bay. It’s just like a moving river that goes by, and all the birds will come. Then, the water gets all calm. It’s very relaxing.”

For guest Barbara Richardson, her stay at East Brother was something of a history lesson.

“Learning about the lighthouse was fascinating,” she said. “The technology is obsolete, but it’s amazing that they’ve been able to keep all the technology and equipment, so we can experience it.”

East Brother is, indeed, steeped in history like a tea bag. The rectangular structure, lined with a white picket fence to add a dash of homeyness, was one of a dozen built around the greater San Francisco Bay in the late 19th century to keep boats from running aground while navigating the strait and going to and from the Mare Island Navy Yard. It survived until the 1960s, when the Coast Guard replaced lightkeepers with a fully automated beacon. Plans were to raze the stately Victorian structure to deter vandalism. But in the late 1970s, a citizen’s group formed and restored the lighthouse and grounds to their former glory.

The nonprofit has kept East Brother open and history alive by turning the facility into a luxury B&B, charging guests between $315 and $425 a night, including hors d’oeuvres and champagne upon arrival, a four-course dinner and gourmet breakfast. Richard and Jude, given their backgrounds in journalism and the theater, also vividly tell the history of the island, how it made the switch from kerosene to electric to LED in the lighthouse, how to this day the only source of water comes from the sky, as rainwater is funneled into a cistern smack dab in the middle of the property.

The concrete deck separating the cistern, the fog house and the water tank is banked so that all rainwater flows into the cistern, where it is filtered to use for drinking, cooking and washing.

“The rainwater goes into these holes and it fills a 50,000-gallon tank,” Foregger said. “Very old school. It’s pumped to the tank and then from there it goes inside.”

Earlier this year, at the height of the drought, the innkeepers and the nonprofit worried about having enough water to last.

“We got down to a foot and a half of water in this thing, which is not much water,” said Foregger, pointing to the tank. “It got a little scary. We even looked into buying water. But to have 50,000 gallons of water barged in and pumped into the tank would’ve cost about five grand. Fortunately, with all the rains recently, we’re almost up to capacity. It’s a pretty cool and efficient system.”

Coolest of all, at least for the guests, is that each morning at about 10 they are allowed to open the valves in the fog house and let the old compressed-air foghorn make its sonorous alert. That old-school foghorn is just for show, since the Coast Guard has installed an automated horn that blows once every 20 seconds between November and April.

Antiquated as the foghorn may be, “the guests get a kick out of it,” Foregger said. Though ships now can navigate via GPS, the flashing light and bellowing horn still serve a purpose, Foregger tells his guests.

“In fact, in a small craft like the one down here,” he said, pointing to the ferry docked and hydraulically lifted out of the water, “I’ve gotten caught in the fog a couple of times. All I have is a boat compass, so I follow compass headings. But sometimes the current or the wind might push me around so I miss the island. I remember one time I was thinking, ‘I should’ve hit the island by now, but I heard the foghorn behind me. So, instead of warning me of the island, I used it to guide me to it.”

Foregger, 66, and Haukom, 61, aren’t your average island innkeepers – if even such a type exists. They haven’t spent their lives with saltwater running through their veins. Foregger became an avid sailor and earned his master of steam or motor vessels license while working a TV job in Seattle more than a decade ago and owns a 45-foot yacht moored at the Berkeley marina. Haukom said she loves the water – “I’m a double fire sign, astrologically,” she said, “My sun is in Leo and my moon is in Leo, so maybe it’s the heat. I don’t know, but I love to feel water and watch it” – and longed for the adventure of living in its midst.

So when the previous innkeepers gave notice about 21/2 years ago, the couple decided to apply, thinking they had no chance to be hired since neither had experience in the hospitality industry. Like many Bay Areans, they hadn’t known about East Brother. A friend of Haukom’s found the job listing on Craigslist and forwarded it, knowing that the couple was “between jobs” and qualified because of his captain’s license and her cooking skills.

Haukom recalled her sense of wonder making her first boat trip out to the island to meet with the previous innkeepers.

“I was amazed that this had been here all along, and I didn’t know about it,” she said. “It’s such a jewel. Like so many people who look over and wonder about that place, I had never done any research.”

What they saw was a beautifully preserved three-story house with a widow’s walk to the pointy spire of the lighthouse. The rooms are large and well-appointed, with burnished wooden floors and picture-window views of Bay Area landmarks. From the kitchen, where Haukom spends considerable time when not tending to her pet project, the garden, she can gaze at a panoramic view of the East and North bays and at the city lurking well in the distance behind a spit of land.

Cooking for parties of 10 or more is a chore, but Haukom says she enjoys the challenge. And the couple says they also like the company, whether it is a families, couples, wedding parties or corporate retreats.

“It’s very interesting because you get all types of people out here,” Foregger said. “Put them around one table and feed them wine and food and all of a sudden, the place comes alive.”

Actually, life teems at all times on East Brother. You just have to pay attention.

“Last year,” Haukom said, “we saw a baby seal being born. We were standing in the back, looking over the fence and the mother seal got up onto the rock and she was kind of pulling her baby alongside. Well, the mother seal turned around and the umbilical cord was still there. I watched the mother bite off the cord. She positioned herself and got the baby to nurse, and it was all right in front of our eyes. Amazing.”

Related information:
•  Gallery: East Brother Light Station Bed & Breakfast

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