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Monday, June 14, 2021

Maritime Logistics Professional

The ubiquitous lighthouse

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on September 8, 2009

A unique and irreplaceable aid to navigation

We are well into the age of electronic navigation. Most automobiles sold today come with GPS devices. For those that don’t, or for older cars, there are add-on devices that mount on the dashboard. Many cell phones are now equipped with GPS. Ocean-going ships all have electronic positioning devices (GPS or LORAN or both) and will soon be required to have fully integrated electronic charting systems. It has reached the point where use of the sextant is a dying skill, taught more as nautical history than as a bedrock of navigation. Major marine casualties have been caused by sole reliance on electronic navigation, with total failure to check other readily available information. The cruise ship Royal Majesty grounded on a charted and marked shoal off Nantucket in 1995 when the officer of the watch used a faulty GPS reading, ignoring radar, fathometer, LORAN, and the buoy marking the shoal.  Curiously though, in this age of modernity, no one will give up their local lighthouse. The lighthouse was first developed thousands of years ago to mark harbors, such as Alexandria, Egypt on an otherwise featureless coast. Over time, it took on the additional mission of marking hazards to navigation, such as the Eddystone Rocks off Devon, England or the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The signal importance of lighthouses has faded with time. Few government agencies, though, have the bravery to pull down, or even extinguish, a lighthouse. Many nations have volunteer societies dedicated to the preservation of lighthouses and every coastal community with a nearby lighthouse has a chapter devoted to “our” lighthouse. It is not just historians, though, who refuse to let go of lighthouses. Mariners, be they merchant mariners, fishermen, or recreational boaters, rely on lighthouses daily, not so much to find their way back to port or to avoid shoal water, but as a reassurance that they are where believe themselves to be. The lighthouse provides an unquantifiable source of comfort in an increasingly complex world. Without it, the mariner might not be lost, but he or she would be anxious. As a popular television commercial would say: It’s priceless.