AS the Coast Guard boat skims across Boston Harbor, it draws closer to the island lighthouse, one of only five manually operated lights in the United States. Salt water sprays off the rocks while seabirds circle around a lobster boat a little ways offshore. For 273 years, lighthouse keepers on Little Brewster Island have used the beacon to guide ships safely. But if the Coast Guard's plans are carried out, Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse site in the country, will become just like 450 others, lit by automatic switches instead of by people. Automation would save the Coast Guard about $10,000 a year.
For Dennis Dever, keeper of the lighthouse, the change will mean a different job. ``I'll definitely be sad to leave it,'' he says. ``I love the job out there. It was sort of a common way of life a couple hundred years ago. Now it's a unique way of life.''
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts is pushing to keep ``the crown jewel of American lighthouses'' in its original, manually operated state. He recently petitioned the Senate's Subcommittee on Transportation with his plan.
Senator Kennedy hopes to ``buy time for Boston Light'' by obtaining the $125,000 needed to operate it for the next 12 months from the subcommittee and Related Agencies, says Kathi Anderson, a legislative aid.
The issue will be taken up in September, when Congress reconvenes. If Congress votes funds to keep Boston Light manned another year, a feasibility study on the light's future will begin under the auspices of the Department of Environmental Management and Historic Boston Inc.
The issue touches the hearts of many Bostonians. One group that has been involved is the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands Inc. ``People come to Boston from all over the country to see historic monuments,'' says Sheila Lynch, vice-president of the Advocacy Committee for the group.
Ms. Lynch has mobilized citizens to write to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies, which holds the purse strings in the lighthouse debate.
If funds don't come through, and the lighthouse is automated, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management staff will maintain the grounds. The Coast Guard will still be responsible and legally liable for the foghorn and the light.
``The best solution,'' says Lt. John Brooks of the Coast Guard, is to combine automation with a caretaker, which could be paid for by a citizens group. Even this, however, says Mr. Brooks, is disappointing because ``it's a page of history that's closing, and there's a certain sadness there.''
For Russ (Duke) Ryan, who has fished the Boston Harbor waters for 34 years, the lighthouse issue doesn't keep him from his fishing excursions that begin every morning at 4 a.m. A writer of poetry and stories based on the sea, the Mr. Ryan, 82, has seen a lot of changes.
Dependence on the traditional way of doing things has taken a back seat to new technology. Ryan says that the boat he fishes on has computers, radar, and a ship-to-shore telephone to guide him.
``I don't think you'd find anyone interested in Boston Light. It's just one of the many lights up and down the coast,'' he says.