Foghorns will likely sound less often on the Maine coast this year. For some, the nostalgia is already as thick as pea soup.Few sounds evoke the Maine coast as readily as the low, steady thrum of a foghorn. And few communities are as protective of their traditions as mariners. So it should’ve surprised no one in 2014 when the Coast Guard met resistance after announcing it was replacing its automated foghorn system. For some 30 years, Maine’s fog signals have been operated by a detection system that “sees” fog and triggers a recurring horn. But the systems are old and unreliable, says the Coast Guard — finding parts to fix them is tough. And since today’s boaters tend to have access to GPS, foghorns themselves aren’t as essential. So the Coast Guard, as part of a nationwide effort, opted to switch to a “mariner-activated system” in which boaters use VHF radios to trigger a foghorn only if they happen to need it.
But when the community around Goat Island Light in Kennebunkport — one of the first to make the switch — found out about the change, opposition was ornery enough that the Coast Guard delayed the project elsewhere until they could assuage local concerns. Upgrades to 17 Maine lighthouses finally wrapped this winter.
“Nobody’s going to die,” assures Coast Guard spokesman Lt. David Bourbeau, who sounds a little weary talking about it. The same change, he says, has already been made around the Great Lakes and elsewhere, with no reported issues.
But for some, safety was a lesser concern than a loss of romance from less frequent fog signals. “The Egg Rock horn has always been one of the things I cherish about my home in Otter Creek,” wrote Bangor Daily News blogger Karen O. Zimmerman earlier this year. “[Now] I doubt I will ever hear it from October to May and will probably not notice it if randomly activated for a brief moment in the summer.”
“The sound of a foghorn is part of what makes the Maine coast the Maine coast,” agrees Jeremy D’Entremont, historian of the American Lighthouse Foundation. “So that is kind of sad. But I guess it’s progress?”
In any case, it’s not the first evolution in lighthouse fog warnings. Cannon fire once thundered from Lubec’s West Quoddy Head; later, it got a bell. Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth sounded a train whistle until it was replaced by a siren in 1873. In the early 1900s, several keepers had “fog dogs” that barked in response to boat horns. In an age when most of us can pinpoint our location with a tap on our phones, maybe it’s surprising that Maine foghorns still sound at all — in Ireland, for example, foghorns have already been eliminated altogether.
Or maybe the recent foghorn upgrade is a little like ditching cable for Netflix? “We understand the romance of the sound signal,” says the Coast Guard’s Bourbeau. “The beautiful sound of coastal Maine, right? Well, it’s still there. Now you can just use them on demand.”
Photograph by Marty Saccone