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Protecting the Mariner

Lighthouses and Lightships

Governments have increasingly seen protecting seafarers and ships as their duty. Discover here how systems have gradually been put in place to warn the mariner of dangers and help him decide his position, and examples of how legislation has helped protect him.

Until modern aids such as radio and satellite navigation systems became available, navigation was a matter of measuring the angle of the sun or stars to fix a ship`s position, and of recognising places ashore when in sight of land. Because clouds could blot out sun and stars and bad weather could obscure the coast, these methods were unreliable, and as a result many ships were wrecked.

To help the seafarer find his way safely around the coast, a system of navigational lights was gradually introduced. The earliest were no more than fires of wood or coal, sometimes placed on towers to increase the distance from which they could be seen. These were the forerunners of lighthouses. Fires were replaced with candles, and then with oil and later electric lights. As engineers grew bolder and more experienced, lighthouses were built not just on the coast but also on offshore islands and rocks. These mark such hazards as the Eddystone Rock in the English Channel, Fastnet off the south of Ireland, or Skerryvore west of Scotland. Building lighthouses offshore involved a lot of planning and organisation. All materials and equipment had to be transported across miles of often-rough water and work could only be done in the summer during fine weather.

Compared with candles, oil and electric lamps gave far stronger beams, which were concentrated by powerful lenses and could be seen over greater distances. They also had another big advantage. Using these types of fuel also meant that the lights could be made to flash or rotate. This allowed individual lighthouses to have distinctive patterns, so mariners could identify them from how often they flashed in a given time. Lighthouses are not much help in fog, so many have audible signals which are switched on when visibility is poor.


Magnifying glassLightship

Where there needs to be a warning of shallow water but it is difficult to build a lighthouse, a light ship would be anchored. For instance, the notorious Goodwin Sands off Kent lie close to a very busy shipping lane used by traffic up and down the east coast of England. No less than three lightships marked the sands.

Today, lighthouses and all lightships around the British Isles are automated, so the days of men working for months in these isolated stations are mostly over. Light ships can still be seen, now working automatically. But many have been replaced by Large Automatic Navigation Buoys. (LANBYs)

Lights and other navigational aids round the coast are paid for by `dues` - charges collected from every ship that uses a British or Irish port. These are passed to the three authorities that maintain navigational aids: Trinity House (for England, Wales and the Channel Isles), the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses (Scotland and the Isle of Man) and the Commissioners for Irish Lights (for the island of Ireland).


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