Arno Gasteiger

Last of the lighthouse keepers

Automation has brought to an end the tradition of lighthouse keeping in New Zealand. By mid-1990 the switch will be complete and the manned lighthouse will be no more. Tony Reid visited four of the remaining keepers to discover what draws these people to their unique and seemingly romantic way of life.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger

Alan Martin suddenly decided it was not too late for the truth. He sat up in bed, tapped his wife on the shoulder, looked her in the eye and admitted his secret.

“Remember at the beginning when I asked if you would like to live in a lighthouse and you became so enthusiastic? Well, I just meant it as a joke, Shirley. But you took the whole thing so seriously that I had no choice but to follow through.”

She looked back at him sleepily, grinned and said calmly, “Then it has been a joke for 27 years of our lives and now it looks like the joke is on you!”

They stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.

Alan Martin is New Zealand’s longest-serving lighthouse keeper and now, like all the others, he is about to lose his way of life. By June 20, 1990, the last of our manned lighthouses will be automated. But after Alan’s admission that night the Martins felt completely released from anxiety about the future. Jobless, middle-aged and happy they would go back to civilisation for one final adventure.

Mr and Mrs Martin of Nugget Point lighthouse delight in telling this story. It seems to epitomise their image of themselves and other couples in the lighthouse service — people who help rather than need help, maintain solidarity of spirit against the odds and hugely enjoy life because they are uncrushable survivors.

However, the Martins admit that earlier they had felt confused and exhausted by a very long public row concerning their professional future. When Alan Martin began his career it seemed a totally secure occupation. After all, even 2000 years ago beacon fires were being lit on high cliffs to guide mariners, and over the last five centuries in Britain the Elder Brethren of Trinity House had developed the most reputable and valued manned lighthouse service in the world.

That tradition flowed on to New Zealand. During our early history shipwrecks became common on the unlit coast and by 1845 more than 100 vessels had been totally lost. The first lighthouse began operating at Pencarrow Head (near the entrance to Wellington harbour) in 1859. By 1881 another 20 lighthouses had been shipped from England and erected, and in 1911 78 keepers were tending some 42 lights around the coast from Cape Maria Van Diemen in the north to Centre Island in the south.

As late as 1974 25 manned “lights” remained, yet at the time this article was researched just six stations had fulltime residential staff. Technology has subverted this long and honourable tradition.

The lights were originally powered by colza oil, a derivative of rape. Later vaporised kerosine did the same job. Inside the glass lenses the actual light looked like a large Tilley lantern. These were the days of night watches, and every few hours keepers wound up a clockwork mechanism to ensure the lenses continued to revolve.

By 1957 all the main lights had been electrified and the paramount importance of keepers slowly eroded. Eventually, nearly all lighthouses were connected to the national mains supply, and now the only stations using diesel-electric generating plants are those on remote islands.

Elsewhere the generators became silent backups for emergencies. Various technological advances made the job less labour intensive; two or three families were no longer required to operate a station, and a staffing policy of natural attrition slowly whittled away the number of keepers.

By the end of the 1970s “demanning” had become a buzz word within the offices of the keepers’ employers, the Ministry of Transport. The Baring Head lighthouse keeper and Public Service Association representative, Steve O’Neill, says keepers “objected, fought, placated, pleaded”. Eventually they refused to supply weather observations and, as a final protest, threatened to turn the lights out.

A Commission of Enquiry eventually recommended that nine of the lighthouses should remain manned and their full automation be considered only when the current resident keepers had retired. Those very keepers will bitterly tell you that even in May, 1987, the then Minister of Transport, Richard Prebble, had informed the PSA that rumours about the destaffing of all lighthouses were without foundation.

But uncertainty gnawed deep into the family lives of keepers. Then the Martins of Nugget Point were tipped off that officialdom would drive in the next day to announce their redundancy.

“When we heard about the visit . . well, I have no words except to say that it felt as if someone had hit us,” says Shirley Martin. “We had just 24 hours to find our composure and prepare ourselves for the worst.

“Oh, with all the hassles about the future of Nugget Point over the years I had already told my husband that I no longer cared whether I stayed or left. I got to the stage where I just felt, `to hell with it’. Everything seemed poisoned. But I now know that nobody can take our happiness away. While we’ve been so cushioned by this lifestyle we can also be happy in the wider world.”

The keepers are very practical people who advance very practical arguments about the preservation of their jobs. These include the necessity for visual observations to supplement automated weather readings on some stations, the role of keepers in search and rescue operations, the cost of manning versus demanning, protection from vandalism and protection of wildlife on some stations.

They are grateful for a surge of public support when it was finally decided their jobs would go. They are also a bit bewildered by the highly emotional reactions.

“It’s great to see the public upset and sad about what is going to happen,” says Alan Martin. “But if you listen to some people you’d think our demise is like the pyramids falling down.”

The keepers are suspicious of such romanticism. For city people our remote coast can be a Kiwi equivalent of the Australian outback — a place of primitive beauty where people are reduced to the correct, human proportions by a huge, wild landscape. The manned lighthouses stand in places where our very survival would usually be threatened. Their simple shapes rising out of barren landscapes are matched by a purity of function; they symbolise a vigil by mankind to protect and guide all who might be lost or endangered.

The keepers see something quite different: a workplace they also call home; an everyday environment where life is pretty routine and similar to the experiences of many country people.

“The standard questions,” laughs Steve O’Neill’s wife, Lynley, “are how do you cope with the terrible isolation, how often do you see shipwrecks, what do you do all day, aren’t you frightened, how do you manage without any of civilisation’s comforts.”

Yet when you start looking into those questions it becomes clear that the patterns of their lives are often extraordinary. They are a breed of people with different delights, problems, family ties and expectations.

“It’s so difficult for us to tell you about how we live,” says Steve O’Neill. “Every lighthouse station is different. Different duties, different weather, different personalities living on the place, a different atmosphere. And we are so isolated from one another that we often only know of our own experiences in certain places. The rest is just reputation. As you visit some of these last manned lighthouses and hear about others you’ll realise that we all live in very separate worlds.”

[Chapter break]

You have travelled down to Baklutha and out to South Otago’s Catlins Coast. Now the car is on Kaka Point Road and heading towards Nugget Point lighthouse. In midsummer the weather is freezing and a wild sea throws solid mats of bull kelp and froth on to a beach only metres away from the road. Ahead you can just make out the lighthouse through mist and rain.

It looks such a tiny manmade addition to the vast landscape — a small signpost of warning clinging to the tip of Nugget Point’s massive bluffs. You wonder how the road could possibly have the temerity to find a route up to the 119yearold structure. You wonder what sort of house could possibly survive up there and who would ever choose to inhabit it.

Arrival at the home of resident keeper, Alan Martin, is a sudden, shaming corrective to such romantic notions. This is a lovely bungalow surrounded by flowering shrubs, a clipped hedge and an extensive garden. Although a sign, “Elsewhere,” is neatly attached to the gate it seems the visitor might be anywhere in the suburbs.

You enter the house through a conservatory and walk through spotless rooms full of sophisticated comforts. Microwave, video, Robert Carrier cook books on the shelves, soothing music playing on the stereo.

In the lounge you sip from crystal glasses and chat about overseas holidays. Beyond the large windows lies a breathtaking elemental seascape; wind and rain lash these windows but cannot disturb the ordered, domestic comforts within.

Their conversation reflects the house’s indifference towards the anarchic power of what lies outside. The Martins are almost determinedly happy and during 27 years of lighthouse service have never felt the beginnings of eroding loneliness. Why, says Shirley, the very thought of isolation originally attracted her towards this life. In those days she actually thought keepers lived in the lighthouse and had circular furniture. And, yes, it was a bit of a disappointment to find that was an illusion.

She describes their very first appointment as keepers at Moko Hinau lighthouse. The very bumpy boat trip out was an adventure, getting ashore while soaked was another adventure, trying unsuccessfully to light the coal range in their old cottage became an “hilarious experience”. On another station where the wind so shook the house that their bed shifted across the floor the Martins would merely cuddle up and giggle.

“They say that if you can stand it for a year and remain sane then you’ve got the makings of a keeper,” she explains.

Each station staffed by the Martins has offered a different set of routines. It is a life dominated by duties, and the sequence varies little from day to day. To the outsider the endless repetition of certain things at certain times of day seems oppressive; for the keepers the certainty of that pattern is savoured as a pleasure.

At 6 am Alan Martin delivers the first of the three-hourly weather reports required throughout the day: wind direction, wind speed, rainfall measurement, cloud patterns and heights, visibility, sea conditions, barometric pressure.

Because the light at Nugget Point is now semiautomated he no longer needs to turn it on and off. But the light’s efficient operation remains any keeper’s main responsibility. If it fails alarm bells ring in the Martins’ house and Alan has 15 minutes to fix the problem. Otherwise marine authorities must be notified.

But that sort of emergency is extremely rare. Alan Martin’s days are usually devoted to the official weather reports, answering the phone to boaties who want unofficial weather reports, looking after the backup generators, mowing lawns and maintaining buildings, paths and fences. At night it’s time for television, reading or hobbies. Most keepers have a passionate attachment to various hobbies and Martin’s special interest is bone carving.

“The day goes so quickly for me,” says Shirley. “Over the years there has been looking after Alan and the kids, doing correspondence school with them or smoking fish, curing meat, making butter … actually, I’m not quite sure what I do except that it’s idyllic. Everything is controlled for you or by you.”

The Martins echo the standard sentiments expressed by many lighthouse’ keepers. Isolation is merely a state of mind. If people are idle, friendless or incompatible with their surroundings then they are likely to feel lonely. If you are unsuited to the lighthouse life then you succumb to that feeling; if people are unsuited to city life they feel lonely in a penthouse.

And yet they also admit that isolation can impose different conventions and warp social patterns. During the days of three-keeper stations a small group of people totally removed from wider society avoided friction by avoiding one another’s company.

The principal keeper’s family occupied “Number One” house. Next door “Number Two” house would look not quite as nice. “Number Three” house, for probationary or relieving keepers, was noticeably inferior.

“You achieved cohesion by keeping out of the others’ way,” says Alan Martin. “Too much contact would lead to imagined slights, things festering in the mind, molehills becoming mountains. So we would not go into the other keepers’ homes very often. Occasional morning teas for the wives, occasional social evenings for everyone. But nothing much more than that.”

Shirley is astonished by my automatic assumption that life on a remote station must be intensely communal. Oh no, she counters, the very thought was quite impossible. Why, when she first arrived at a station nobody dreamed of using her Christian name in conversation.

“I would always be called Mrs Martin for quite some time. You see, if you have three families it is very important that two of them don’t become close and exclude the other. The same went for relationships among the children. Otherwise you faced resentment and jealousies. I can remember when two keepers swapped wives and the scandal spread among us all. From one end of New Zealand to the other. If you get too close to other families