Don’t Let the Lighthouses Go Dark – special reprint

Don’t Let the Lighthouses Go Dark – special reprint

The following article by Bella Bathhurst from the Notting Hill Editions Journal was passed to me by a BC lightkeeper. It was so well written I asked permission to reprint it here. Pay special attention to the author’s reasons for keeping lighthouses.


Don’t Let the Lighthouses go Dark by Bella Bathhurst
– published November 10, 2011

 – published with permission from Notting Hill Editions Journal

We are jettisoning lighthouses at our peril, writes Bella Bathurst, a lighthouse historian. Even in the age of GPS, they remain immensely useful, and retain deep symbolic power.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a book called The Lighthouse Stevensons about the construction of the lights around the Scottish coastline by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. I was lucky to arrive at exactly the right moment.  In 1999, the last of the British lights were being automated and the few remaining keepers were disappearing towards extinction. The men I spoke to were mostly at or near retirement age anyway; most saw the logic of their own removal even if they weren’t persuaded by its effects.  At the beginning of the third millennium, you don’t need three grown men to change a lightbulb.  But what none of those last keepers would ever have understood or sanctioned was the idea of the lights themselves being switched off. 

The Skerryvore Lighthouse, 10 miles south-west of Tiree, in the Hebrides

It is a genuine possibility.  Many UK lighthouses have already been decommissioned or sold off, and a further tranche will be switched off over the next few years.  Their darkening is part of a continuing debate over the requirement for lights.  Why, here at the end of 2011, is it still necessary to have of all old-fashioned things a light at the top of a tower in the middle of the sea?  In an age of electronics, when all professional skippers can tell at the twitch of a joystick the size, type, destination, intention and cargo of almost every other vessel in UK waters, should we be bothering with these antique navigational aids?  Lights  and buoys are paid for not by the taxpayer, but by ships over a certain tonnage paying dues on entry to UK ports.  The dues are heavy and increasing, and suggestions that they be extended to small boat owners have been met with enthusiastic resistance. 

So no-one wants to pay for the lights, no-one thinks they’re necessary, and everyone understands that acts of navigation have moved on a bit in the 150 years since RLS [Robert Louis Stevenson] abandoned engineering for fiction. Even as historical artefacts, those lights are no longer up to much. The majestic Victorian lenses and fine brasswork are long gone, there are helipads on the roof and the diamond-paned lantern rooms are obscured by thick black netting like a bee-keeper’s hairnet to keep birds from flinging themselves into the glass. The motions and cycles of the lights are guided by computers now, switching them on and off or alerting one of the three UK authorities to the presence of faults. Most are solar-powered and in the next few years the bulbs themselves will be switched from tungsten to LEDs – efficient, long-ranging, but with just a single cold flash instead of the old sweeping beam.

Besides, our national waters have changed almost beyond recognition. The Stevensons built lights to mark natural hazards, but now the Northern Lighthouse Board’s aids are often there to mark artificial dangers. Within the last century or so, we have littered our seabed with a phenomenal quantity of clutter: oil rigs and gas exploration platforms, fish farms, telecoms cables, wind farm turbines, pipelines, abandoned sea defences, trawler nets, early warning devices, scuppered German fleets, Second World War ordnance, block ships, nuclear waste, sewage discharge pipes. Around British waters there are more than sixty ships designated as official war graves. Some of the estimated ten thousand sea containers lost overboard worldwide every year end up around our coasts, either floating or sunk. In the North Sea there are the six hundred oil and gas installations nearing the end of their useful lives and now posing an unholy decommissioning issue.

Ireland’s Beaufort Dyke has a million tons of decaying chemical weapons from the First and Second World Wars. And all of that is without three thousand years’ worth of shipwrecks and a lot of Cold War hardware that the MoD probably doesn’t want us to know about. That’s a lot of immovable objects sharing the same space as an even larger number of unstoppable forces.

And life will get a whole lot more interesting in the next few years with the huge expansion of wind, tidal and wave energy devices. In order to meet our committments under the Kyoto Agreement, the UK has to generate 15% of its total energy requirement from renewable resources by 2015. That’s not merely a steep learning curve, that’s a cliff-face. One of the largest and most controversial proposed offshore windfarms is the Argyll Array – or, more properly, the Skerryvore reef 14 miles off the Hebridean island of Tiree. In 1844 on that same reef, Alan Stevenson completed a lighthouse to last a thousand years. It is a masterpiece partly because Alan made it so, and partly because he was building on the two millennia’s worth of experimentation beforehand. From rush-lights in hermitage windows to the Pharos of Alexandria through Henry Winstanley’s splendid embellishments on the Eddystone, someone had already done a great deal of R&D.

Skerryvore, in other words, is a perfected technology. Offshore wind turbines are not a perfected technology. In fact, they’re a relatively new onshore technology which has simply been taken offshore with a few modifications. On land, the life expectancy of a single turbine is 20 to 25 years. At sea, it is significantly shorter. Parts which would normally need servicing every five years need to be renewed every two years offshore. Spray messes with the gearing, eddies pull away the foundations or silt up the footings. In Denmark, all eighty turbines on one wind farm had to be dismantled and repaired after only eighteen months’ exposure to sea air. There are plans for up to 6,000 wind turbines in British waters within the next ten years. Because both the power-loss and the costs mount exponentially the further and deeper offshore the turbines go, they have to be sited as close as possible to the coast. If they’re built on the Skerryvore reef, then the world’s greatest lighthouse will be switched off. So what exactly happens – to the light, and to the sea it once marked – when parts start to fall off some of those turbines? Or, indeed, when they themselves fall?

There’s only one way to find out. Just as with lighthouses, the best way to test a renewable energy device is to keep trying. You stick things down on the sea floor and if it moves or falls over or breaks loose from its moorings then you go back and start again. Again, the Stevensons have something to teach us. Their lights are built in the worst places, with the greatest exposure, for the longest time. They’re templates for extreme construction. And the lessons the Stevensons learned do not date. They can still tell the enquiring engineer what they want to know about every corner of the British coastline from the tip of Unst to the Lizard Point.

The intervening two centuries have also seen a massive change in marine navigational and communication aids. When RLS’s grandfather Robert built the Bell Rock in 1811, ships would often have been forced to use dead reckoning – calculating the ship’s position according to its speed through the water and last known navigational fix. Dead reckoning is an inexact art; captains making long passages across the Atlantic could often be many miles off-course by the time they were within reach of the British coastline. And sprinkling that coast with lights and foghorns to mark the worst of the known hazards often made the difference between safe passage and total destruction. Now, with the Global Positioning System provided free to all users, most mariners need barely glance up from the screens on the bridge. As most people know from their cars’ satnav systems, GPS is accurate to within a few yards, and when used in tandem with all the other advances – VHF radio, AIS, radar, electronic chart plotters, depth gauges etc – probably means that the average 21st century skipper is closer to an IT expert than a prophet of wind and wave.

GPS was originally developed by the Americans as a military system which then broadened out for civilian use. Though the Pentagon are unlikely to make themselves unpopular at home by withdrawing the signal, they’d be perfectly within their rights to do so. It also operates by triangulating a position from satellites in space back to earth. Because that signal has such a long way to travel, it’s very weak by the time it gets here – no more than a few watts. And on the way, it can be knocked about by all sorts of stratospheric and climactic phenomena: sun spots, solar winds, Icelandic volcanoes. Even when it does finally reach earth, that signal is not necessarily accurate. There are now methods available of spoofing or jamming it. On land, that means a lot of lost delivery vans. At sea, that means chaos.

Because people are so confident in their GPS, those on the bridge are cutting corners they never would have cut before. Cutting corners is fine if all the chart depths are accurate and the GPS signal is correct. But if the GPS is telling a skipper that he’s thirty metres away from a submerged reef in ten fathoms of water and he’s actually within inches of it sailing at full speed, there’s a problem. If the false signal is also being received by every other vessel in the area and they’re all now plotting a course, say, ten degrees eastwards of their true position, there’s a very large problem.

Which, it so happens, is exactly why lighthouses were put there in the first place; so you could look up and see a great big tower yelling at you to change course. Navigational errors are not a new thing, and a light still tells the mariner where he is, where he isn’t, what’s beneath him, and how far he’s got to go. A lighthouse won’t lie to you. It can’t move and it isn’t coming from outer space. It can’t be spoofed or jammed or distorted. And it’s very unlikely to be switched off for political reasons. The only time in 200 years that any of British lights have been dimmed or extinguished was during the Second World War. Several were machine-gunned or bombed by the Luftwaffe, and the lights on the west were restored to full range only when convoys were passing through.

And, if the lights are often associated with a vague nobility of spirit, it’s worth noting at this point that the original impetus to build them came from more prosaic impulses – not from the families of shipwreck victims outraged at the needless loss of life, but from shipowners fed up with annual losses of 20% or more. Two centuries on, those same shipowners are now protesting about the cost of light dues. There’s certainly a good argument for extending the dues to yachties as well, but perhaps the larger owners should consider what might happen to their balance sheets if all the lights were switched off. If they go, then the backup plan leaves with them. Suddenly there’s no margin for error, no fallback option, no Plan B. Do shipowners really feel that lucky?

In dreams and mythology, the sea is our subconscious, lawless, primal, anarchic. It’s where we hide all the things that we don’t want seen on the surface. Now, if we want a convenient way not to think about something, then we put it offshore. But back when Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, father and uncles were working, the sea was inescapable. We were an island then, and we thought like one. The sea was our source of strength and wealth, our biggest asset but our greatest weakness, and even if you lived in the very centre of the country you could never completely escape salt water.

In the 70 years since then, we’ve done our very best to forget we’re an island. 95% of British imports arrive by sea, but to the vast majority of people they remain invisible. In 2009, about 26,700 Britons worked on water – a tiny fraction of the total workforce. We have almost completely lost the capacity or skills to build our own ships. Which, for a nation surrounded by water, may one day turn out to be a bit of an oversight. And because seafaring has become such a specialist trade, we’ve developed an odd kind of schizophrenia. Either our ocean is all about nostalgia and holidays, or it’s being taken for everything it has.

Unfortunately. removing its resources and dumping our rubbish is not an adequate long-term plan. We can treat the sea as a giant grey carpet under which we sweep our national secrets, or we can understand it as the Stevensons understood it. Robert and his sons gave everything they had to build those lights, and they paid the price. If they had done less, the lights wouldn’t still be here. Perhaps one day this generation will be asked to make a similar calculation.

Britain’s lighthouses are there for us all, without discrimination. They aren’t just architectural and engineering marvels or technological triumphs. They aren’t even just about saving lives, though for two hundred years they have done just that. They are the very best of us: our humanity, our courage, our capacity for beauty, our love. The reason why we need them is simply, shiningly obvious – because they’re a light in the dark.

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Retired (2001) British Columbia lighthouse keeper after 32 years on the lights.

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