LIFESTYLES

Beacon of controversy

Manned, lighthouses could fall victim to budget cuts and automation

CHRIS WOOD October 24 1994
LIFESTYLES

Beacon of controversy

Manned, lighthouses could fall victim to budget cuts and automation

CHRIS WOOD October 24 1994

Beacon of controversy

LIFESTYLES

Manned, lighthouses could fall victim to budget cuts and automation

CHRIS WOOD

Even by daylight and with the sea glassy and somnolent, the shoreline is menacing. Grey rock outcrops thrust forward from the base of 150-foot cliffs like rotten teeth, chewing the ceaseless Pacific swell into white foam. To the west, rocks guard an exposed bay; to the east, sheer cliffs march implacably to the horizon. For generations of mariners, searching by star, compass or dead reckoning for the safety of harbors in Vancouver and Seattle, those cliffs have offered a treacherous—and sometimes fatal—first landfall. And the handful of lighthouses like the one that has stood for 87 years on Pachena Point, 130 km west of Victoria on Vancouver Island, have literally been beacons of salvation, fixed points of reference along an otherwise featureless coast. Douglas Fraser, the principal keeper of the Pachena Point light, would like to keep it that way. Declared the genial 57-year-old, as he guided visitors around the historic station: “The aid to navigation is as essential today as it ever was.”

Keepers like Fraser, however, are another matter. For the third time in as many decades, the Canadian Coast Guard, which operates 35 lighthouses on the West Coast and 35 more on the Atlantic, has set out to replace its human keepers with unattended, automated lights and foghorns. The motive: an estimated $6.8-million-a-year saving. In the past, intense lobbying by mariners and regional politicians succeeded in persuading the Ottawa-based Coast Guard to shelve its so-called destaffmg initiatives. But that is far from certain this time. Even as a deficit-conscious federal government is exerting pressure on the agency to trim a further three per cent annually from its $573-million budget, advocates of destaffmg argue that ongoing improvements in electronic navigation have reduced the importance of traditional lighthouses. Still, in a province where an estimated one-third of the population uses the water regularly for business or pleasure, the proposal has raised both vocal resistance and alarm for marine safety. ‘What’s happening here is false economy,” argues Dennis Brown of the fishermen’s union. “I am just as pained as anybody else about how much tax I have to pay, but I’m not out to get firemen, I’m not out to get nurses and I’m not out to get lightkeepers.”

British Columbians it is just common sense. The province’s saw-toothed, 30,000-km coastline, made all the more hazardous by powerful tidal rips and currents that can move faster than many small boats, is heavily travelled. Supertankers as long as several football fields regularly track the B.C. coast on their way from Alaskan oil fields to southern refineries. Each year, about 3,000 deep-sea merchant vessels also enter ports in the province. Tugs towing log booms and barges loaded with gravel and coal share the congested waters of Georgia Strait, between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland, with cruise ships the size of floating hotels, ferries that annually carry 11 million passengers and some 250,000 pleasure craft ranging in size from fragile kayaks to the mega-yachts of the wealthy. And that traffic is increasing. Fraser, pointing towards a passing yacht from the narrow balcony 225 feet above the water at the top of the Pachena Point light, notes: ‘When we first came here in 1976, we wouldn’t see a pleasure boat like that here. Now, the numbers are growing all the time.” But so is the federal debt, a troubling reality that has prompted several previous attempts to replace manned lights with less costly automated beacons. The Coast Guard has already im-

The notion that lighthouses constitute an essential public service may be foreign to landlocked decision-makers in Ottawa, but to many

ted him. Minutes later, lightkeeper Iain Colquhoun pulled the exhausted Weitman into his own boat. “I remember seeing that light out there,” Weitman says now, “and wondering if it was already automated. It was kind of a scary thought.”

B.C. lightkeepers are angered by the apparent ingratitude of at least one other boater. Former Pachena Point keeper Tom Carr recalls that in 1978 David Anderson, now the member of Parliament for Victoria and federal revenue minister, was piloting a small sailboat from Hawaii when the craft was caught in a gale just off the B.C. coast. Contacted by radio, the keepers of another light near Pachena Point directed Anderson into a safe harbor. Later, Anderson hiked nine kilometres to present his benefactors with a bottle of champagne. But the minister, who now maintains that his boat was never in danger, has declined to lend his political weight to the keepers’ campaign to preserve their role. ‘We thought we were doing a service and now we’re riffraff,” declares Carr. “It just gives you a rotten feeling.”

The keepers have other allies, however. Early last summer, Carney again raised the issue in the Senate. And in June, half a dozen members of British Columbia’s NDP government put their names to a letter urging the Coast Guard to reconsider. Its plans, said the letter, “will unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of travellers up and down British Columbia’s coast.”

At the least, the opposition has forced the Coast Guard to put any action on hold while it undertakes a wholesale public review of its plan. The review, however, may only draw renewed attention to what critics say has been a progressive downgrading of the Coast Guard’s capabilities on the West Coast. Other complaints likely to surface during the review focus on the withdrawal of one of two rescue hovercraft from service in Georgia Strait, and a two-year-old policy banning Coast Guard divers from attempting to rescue victims trapped in overturned or sunken vessels. The agency took the steps to save money, despite a 280-per-cent increase in vessel accidents in B.C. waters be tween 1983 and 1992.

Meanwhile, whatever the capabilities of modern navigation electronics, many mariners continue to find comfort in the familiar beacon of an old-fashioned lighthouse. “You can look in your radar all you want,” observes Capt. Rajiv Deengar, a former tanker master who now teaches navigation at the Pacific Marine Training Institute in North Vancouver, “but the final confirmation that you are where you think you are is the loom of the lighthouse.” Manned or not, that source of comfort, however old-fashioned, is plainly as important now as it was in 1906, the year that 126 people died when the SS Valencia went aground on the cliffs east of Pachena Point. The following year, the Dominion government built the lighthouse.

CHRIS WOOD at Pachena Point

posed the transition on dozens of lighthouses elsewhere in the country, reducing the number of manned stations in the three Maritime provinces to three from more than 80 in 1975. In 1992, regional opposition led by Pat Carney, a B.C. senator and former federal minister, forced the Conservative government to abandon a similarly sweeping plan to do away with western lightkeepers. But last March, new Liberal Transport Minister Douglas Young (whose home town is the New Brunswick coastal community of Tracadie) ordered that destaffing be resumed.

Coast Guard managers insist that the tran-

sition can take place without putting boaters, ferry passengers and seafarers at risk. Citing the agency’s experience with its 937 existing unattended light beacons along the Pacific coast, western regional marine navigation services manager Richard Bryant asserts, ‘The automated light stations will be sufficiently reliable for safe navigation.” At the same time, the Coast Guard hopes to achieve substantial savings by closing the large and costly manned light stations: at Pachena Point alone, for instance, there are two houses, a workshop-office and a helipad. The changeover on the Pacific would take three years to complete at a cost of $5 million.

But lightkeepers like Fraser say mariners will suffer. For one thing, they question Bryant’s claim that automated light and fog signals are “99per-cent reliable.” According to Fraser, the electronic fog detector that points its twin barrels out to sea from a small window halfway up the Pachena Point light tower malfunctions at least one-quarter of the time that it is in use. “If you take the people away,” he says, “you are going to have 75-per-cent operation.” Moreover, frequent bad weather, especially in the winter, can make it impossible for repair crews to land at the exposed light station, raising the spectre of extended shutdowns if the station were unmanned.

Although their main job is simply to maintain the lights, keepers argue that they provide other services, often unofficially, that mariners would miss. One of those is taking weather and sea-state observations once every three hours: the reports are used to assemble marine and aviation weather reports and are heavily relied on by vessel skippers who know that conditions along the coast can vary dramatically even over short distances. Another is environmental monitoring: Fraser notes that a neighboring light station at Carmanah Point was the first to report a large oil slick that endangered western Vancouver Island in 1989.

The service that mariners may miss the most is also beyond any official description of a lightkeeper’s job. Lightkeepers routinely watch for vessels in trouble and frequently play a direct role in their rescue. Among those who credit alert lightkeepers with saving their lives is Victoria kayaker James Weitman. The 30year-old gardener, an experienced a paddler, was boating with a friend i near Trial Island just south of downz town Victoria last July when 10-foot « waves capsized his frail craft. Unable t to right his kayak, Weitman was besi ing pulled out to sea by a powerful

0 current when attendants at the

1 manned Trial Island lighthouse spot-