Older cruising sailors in our midst regret the gradual decommissioning of the world's lighthouses, the sudden regular twinkling of which brought a smile to the faces of lonely night sailors. But what of those who manned lighthouses before automation? In this first episode, Paul Abbott tells of his time on one of the world's most southerly lighthouses, to be continued in the weeks to come...
The Tasman Lighthouse
The boat sat uncomfortably on the water. The sea was heaving. As a swell rolled in, the boat rose – vertically, like a shop elevator – about 12 feet. As the wave rolled away, the boat dropped vertically by the same amount. The boat was not small: about 45 feet long, beamy and solid with a substantial wheelhouse, open cockpit at the stern, and a second deck on the wheelhouse roof. Must have weighed about 12 tons, but the sea just toyed with it.
There were three of us in the cockpit, watching skywards and trying to keep our balance. Above our heads was a huge wicker basket: a cube about four feet by four by four. It was suspended by ropes from a winch car which ran along a cable anchored to a huge rock offshore and to a landing stage perched some 90 feet up the side of the sheer cliff. Tasman Island towered 900 feet above us, forming one side of a channel; Cape Pillar reared a similar height above the water on the other side.
It was New Year’s Eve nineteen sixty-eight, three days after my nineteenth birthday. I had come to this place as a relief light-keeper for the summer, as a 'holiday job' at the end of my first year at uni. The first real paying job I had ever had. I was intrigued, filled with anticipation, and at this moment terrified!
Months earlier, I had been wondering what I could do over the summer, to earn a bit of real money to help supplement my meagre scholarship for the next year. A friend of the family had a son who was now nearly a qualified doctor: he said he had done lighthouse keeping in a couple of uni vacations. He had had a ball looking after the lights at land-based stations along the Australian coastline – could have been Port Sorell, Low Head or Eddystone, or whatever – and suggested I give it a try.
So I applied to the Commonwealth Department of Shipping and Transport, and to my surprise, was accepted. I was drafted into Commonwealth service, swore an oath of allegiance and pledged not to tell anything I saw or did, under the Official Secrets Act. Ever. On pain of death. Near the end of the year they contacted me to offer me a couple of months on Tasman Island, off the south east coastline of Tasmania, replacing two permanent keepers in turn as they went off for their annual leave. I set up a bank account to receive the pay; set up an account with a local grocer who could send supplies and had rights to withdraw direct from my bank to pay for the goods; equipped myself with some warm clothing in addition to the allowance of shirts, pants and jacket the Department provided.
I was due to be delivered to the island on December 30. I was met at the Department offices early that morning by a bloke in the service, who loaded me and my first two weeks’ provisions into his Landrover and we drove to Port Arthur. The road in those days was gravel, winding, and not very safe. My guide drove like a man possessed. Arriving in Port Arthur we learned that the sea state was too heavy to be able to land at the island. Instead, the boat took us out to have a look at a couple of Sydney-Hobart race yachts that were passing the island, and we ran alongside them for a while exchanging pleasantries and in my case, feeling very sick. Spent the night at this bloke’s brother’s shack, and set out in the boat again next morning.
Landing in the boat could be a risky affair.
So here we were, bobbing up and down on the heaving sea, basket overhead. Eventually the skipper called 'Stand right back fellas' and as the boat rushed upward, the basket came down 'CLONK' into the stern of the boat, and stayed there as the boat descended again. We carefully packed all my wooden boxes of food, sleeping bag and clothes, and a welter of other stuff for the families on the island – boxes of library books, crates of beer, more boxes of food and so on – into the basket until it was full. I expected it to be hoisted up to the landing, unloaded, then sent back to pick me up. No way. 'Climb on,' they said.
So I perched terrified on top of the now chock-full basket, hanging on for dear life as the boat shot upwards again, then it went down – and left my basket and me dangling 50 feet above the heaving ocean!
Gradually the squeaking winch car was dragged along the cable until the basket finally bumped onto the wooden landing stage. Several faces greeted me: 'G’day; you must be the new bloke. Out you get.' I stepped off the basket and found my legs had turned to putty. I collapsed in a rubbery heap at their feet.
'Whoops!' they said. 'Hasn’t quite got his sea-legs yet! That last bit’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?'
Once I managed to stand again, they introduced themselves. One was the head keeper, the others were an assistant keeper and his wife and I seem to recall two children. They had a variety of gear on the landing stage which they proceeded to load into the basket, sat the kids on top and off it went again, swinging along the cable until it was positioned over the boat, dropped into the cockpit, kids and gear unloaded and the basket came back for the keeper and his wife. I envied the kids’ easy confidence: they had obviously done this a few times before.
All this while I had, with the keepers’ assistance, been stacking the gear that arrived with me on to a flat-tray railway wagon standing innocuously at the back of the landing. It was at the end of a railway track leading up the cliff. A second track was alongside it. Eventually the boat was loaded, the basket retrieved and stashed in its little shed, and the boat motored away. The head keeper said 'Righto; hop on. It’s important you sit with your feet braced against that board at the back end of the wagon.'
I wondered why that was necessary. I soon found out. The wagon gave a lurch, rumbled into life, ambling off the back of the landing and starting up the slope, pulled by a huge cable. The cable creaked, the wagon wheels squeaked. Every so often they jumped a little, over stones that were on the rail. My heart and stomach were in my mouth as the track grew steeper, and gradually my weight transferred from my posterior to my feet. It was then I noticed someone had carefully tied down all the boxes on the wagon. Halfway up the cliff, another wagon – empty – came down the other track past us in the opposite direction. If I hadn’t been concentrating so hard to keep from pitching forwards right off into space, I would have figured out that it was on the other end of the same cable: as the winch at the top pulled one up, it let the other down.
At this point you might think I was a bit of a wimp. Maybe I was. However, it was also a fact that for my whole life so far, I had lived with a morbid fear of heights. I was so afflicted that once or twice in my earlier teens, when I had tried to challenge myself to climb a ladder, I had barely got past the third rung - fighting the cold sweats - when I completely passed out from sheer terror. There’s a name for this, with '...phobia' at the end of it. And now here I was, taking on a responsible position minding a 100-foot lighthouse, perched on the top of a thousand-foot cliff. I was committed, and no way out. I would just have to face the phobia, and conquer it!
...to be continued...