On my Perch
He used to refer to the lightship as the 'old girl' and at the end of his monthly leave he would wryly announce that he was going back 'to his perch'. I was to learn that this humorous but stoic attitude was common to most Lightshipmena sort of a quiet strength born of a comfortable relationship with themselves in the face of solitude.
And solitude this was: a small ship no bigger than a sea stack, and no less lonesome and vulnerable amidst the vastness and variable moods of the Atlantic. A little red spinning top just big enough to contain a seven man crew: the Master, two Lamplighters, two Fogsignalmen and two Deckhands.
This was their home for six months of the year. Their job was to maintain the lightship as a guiding principle for those unfamiliar with the waters, and as a familiar and welcoming landmark -or should I say watermark? - for those who were.
THE relief boat left from Fethard, a small fishing village not far from Hook Head. It was about 12 miles to the lightship and the boat was a small trawler, its skipper a man called Lewis. The day was quite windy. As we reached the open sea we began to pitch and dip into what seemed like unending valleys of blue. I recall the sensation of looking up into the sea, feeling as if my stomach was somewhere above my head!
Although I had never before met Lewis, I had the utmost of trust in him. He was a seasoned sailor, or at least looked like one, and surely he wouldn't risk our lives if he didn't know what he was doing. Time has since changed that innocence to cold rationality.
Having just passed the Saltee Islands, an impressive natural landmark with its gentle form and natural colours, I caught sight of the Coningbeg - a tiny red speck, formless, an anchored island, a cocky little thing facing up to the elements with an apparent gusto. An Alcatraz to some, maybe; a way of life to others; a possible escape for more. But to me it was surreal, almost spellbinding. The sense of adventure welled up in me more than the waves in the increasingly turbulent sea.
Eventually I could see my father and the other crew members as they watched from the deck. I remember just wanting to jump on board without the palaver of tying up. Little did I know, but that was exactly what I had to do. The sea was so rough that we had to pull alongside and at a suitable point jump on board. In this way I and the supplies came aboard the lightship, while the liberty crew jumped aboard Lewis's boat and, after a few cordial exchanges, were off running with the waves towards terra firma and the warmth of another family.
I say family because that is exactly what it was, the only difference being that this was an all male one. The sense of cohesion was tangible and showed itself in the efficient running of the ship. The camaraderie of the crew towards each other extended onto dry land even after years of not seeing each other. This speaks highly of the quality of relationships that were established as a result of being on the 'perch' together.
AFTER lunch and introductions I was shown around the ship and to my quarters which were in the bow over the mushroom anchor. For the next few days the anchor cable terrorised me with its rattling, groaning, creaking, and banging. The mountainous seas were relentless and confined me to bed.
After a couple of days I got my sea legs (I'm sure it was the lumpy powdered milk that did the trick) and could begin my duties as a deckhand. Duties consisted of cleaning the galley, messroom and alley, answering the daily radio calls, checking the lights, keeping an eye on the engine room, and round-the-clock lookouts from the bridge. I received navigational lessons from the Master covering the meaning of ship's lights, barometer reading, weather reports, and compass work.
Of course, I listened to the sea yarns which were many and varied. One particularly etched on my memory was of the Rookie like myself who decided to do a spot of fishing with a pound of T-bone steak! He was easily persuaded to part with it in exchange for a succulent frozen mackerel. Stories were told of many more of the colourful characters and moments that go together to make a sailor's life so rich in variety.
Another aspect that intrigued me was the skill of the men on board: simple men with only a basic education. Yet they could create works of art of the most intricate design from a variety of coarse materialsships in bottles and bulbs, extraordinarily coloured and shaped rope mats, unusual ashtrays and toys. One man who made brushes of all descriptions used to take hair from local horses but one day was caught in the act and fined £50.
The highlight of my fortnight was when during a night of dense fog and with high seas running the Stena Normandica appeared like a ghostly lit ufo only a few hundred yards across the bow. Apparently unable to dock in Rosslare she was trying to gain shelter from the north-easterlies and, for reasons unknown, didn't detect us. A frightening experience but, thankfully, not very common.
On a lighter note, but no less memorable, was speaking to Thelma Mansfield on the phone, even though I didn't then know who she was. The episode caused great excitement amongst the crew. I remember one fellow describing her as that 'gorgeous blond model with the grand figure on rté'. As it turned out it wasn't to make a date with me but to make a programme about the lightship. Sadly the programme was never made. I am sure people would have found it almost as fascinating on tv as I did in reality and the crew would have enjoyed it too.
I soon began to feel at home. I would watch for hours the extraordinary movement and diversity of nature that surrounded the ship and gave it that aura of mystery that so appealed to me. I couldn't help but be touched by the immensity, quietness, and beauty of it all. I guess for some it wasn't just work and a place where human friendships were formed, although that in itself 'ain't too bad'.
Between bouts of fishing and chasing tired racing pigeons around the deck the fortnight went by quickly. The relief boat dropped us into Kilmore Quay just a few miles further up the coast. To be honest, I was quite glad to get back even if I was wobbling slightly. The seafaring blood of my father and his ancestors is well diluted in me. I leave it to the birds, the creatures of the sea, and that rare specimen - the Lightshipman.
The Cormorant Lightvessel on the Coningbeg station was manned at the time of my tour of duty by:
John Scanlan - Master
Paddy Murphy - Lamplighter
Tony Walsh - Lamplighter
Sonny Roche - Lamplighter
Tommy Wade - Seaman
Denny Revel - Seaman
Paul Roche - Seaman
Sadly some of these crew members have since passed away and with them their individual skills. Others have put their energies into other things but the Coningbeg - converted now to an automatic lightfloatremains as a testament to their fortitude and resilience.
Editor's Note: The Lewis referred to in this article is Lewis Foley who for many years was boat contractor for the Coningbeg. Lewis died on 14th November 1997. We send our sympathy to his family.