Technology snuffs out a tradition Progress: Britain's last manned lighthouse converts to automation later this month, bringing an end to a centuries-old way of life.

Sun Journal

November 10, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NORTH FORELAND, England -- Dermot Cronin is the lighthouse keeper who can't swim. For 33 years he has toiled along Britain's rugged coastline, manning lights of warning and beacons of hope to ships at sea.

But later this month, Cronin's career will come to an end as a centuries-old tradition is taken over by technology.

Britain's last manned lighthouse is converting to automatic operation.

In an age of computers, satellites and mobile telephones, there's no need for an experienced lighthouse keeper like Cronin, a bearded, ruddy-faced 54-year-old who first became engrossed with the occupation in his native Ireland.

Maybe he couldn't swim, but that didn't stop him from pursuing a profession on the edge of turbulent seas. He liked boats and the sea. And he never feared the long hours or the long jaunts to lighthouses that clung to offshore rocks.

"I'm going to miss this," he says. "I'm going to miss the freedom and the way of life, being your own boss and having your own time."

'The human factor'

And what will Britain miss?

"The human factor," he says. "The light will look after itself. But at an isolated station, what is missed is the extra pair of eyes looking out to sea."

Cronin can tell old sea stories. One night he was awakened in a lighthouse off England's south coast by a yacht that collided with the tower he was sleeping in. The yacht's mast kept punching against the timber of a catwalk that surrounded Cronin's sleeping cabin atop the lighthouse.

"There was nothing we could do," he says. "We illuminated the area with flares and watched as the crew dismasted the ship. The yacht was called Battle Cry. Nobody ever wrote to us, to say they were sorry."

The ship and crew survived. And so did the lighthouse.

He recalls the arduous work in the 1960s, when crews spent 56 days at remote lighthouses on rocky outcrops, the lights powered by kerosene, the fresh food running out after a week or so. For a month or more, the men ate nothing but canned meat and vegetables. If a keeper didn't have a hobby, and patience, he was bound to be unsettled by a job filled with loneliness.

"You have to keep your hands and your mind busy," says Cronin, an avid reader and amateur radio enthusiast.

Before helicopters came into widespread use, the lighthouse workers were ferried on small launches that bucked in the water. There were places where crews had to be winched up along ropes over stormy seas, places like wave-swept Bishop Rock, a 167-foot structure in the water off the Scilly Isles, near England's southwestern coast.

"You always have to be wary of the sea," Cronin says. "You have to respect the sea's power. And you have to understand that power."

Lighthouses have guided mariners for centuries, with a design that has stood the test of time and weather -- a tower topped by a light. One of the Seven Wonders of the World was the Pharos of Alexandria, a watch tower and lighthouse built about 280 B.C.

The Romans built lighthouses, even erecting the first such structures in western Europe after they crossed the English Channel. By the 12th century, monasteries and churches maintained fires to mark the shore. With the rise of shipping in the 16th century, lighthouses were constructed throughout Europe.

In Britain, the role of the lighthouse keeper was officially established in 1609 when Trinity House, the corporation that oversees the service here, commissioned its first lighthouse in Lowestoft, East Anglia. For an island nation that drew food from the sea and exerted its power with a mighty fleet, lighthouses became a necessity to save boats and lives.

Family life

By the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 300 lighthouse keepers in Britain. For years, keepers and their families lived near the lighthouses. Normally, three keepers would rotate watches, day and night. At isolated outposts, the keepers would be ferried back and forth, while their families stayed ashore.

During the 1980s, automation took hold, as one by one, lighthouses in Britain and Ireland were turned over to remote monitoring systems. (In the United States, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, only one "semi-manned" lighthouse remains, in Boston.)

Satellites also led to vast improvements, with mariners able to locate their position to within 10 yards up to 50 nautical miles out to sea.

The old era ends at North Foreland Lighthouse, which stands between a golf course, a cabbage patch and a swanky neighborhood near the mouth of the Thames River. On a good day, you can see across the Straits of Dover to the French coast. The first light was placed here in 1499. The current lighthouse tower, flanked by two small houses, was built in 1691.

Cronin is part of the last three-man crew to work at the lighthouse. Even though there is now little to do, they maintain their rotation of two 12-hour days, followed by 24 hours of rest. In recent years, crews worked alternate months.

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