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Thursday, 3 August 2017

Book Reviews

A History of Floating Aids to Navigation by Adrian Wilkins
Reviewed by Gerry Douglas-Sherwood

The title says it all. This is the story of the unsung heroes of the sea: ever present, always dutiful, seldom neglected, yet about which the average person has little knowledge or regard. Global seas and waterways are full of them, each performing their allotted task unquestioningly by day and by night, come wind, rain and high water. This evident gap in published information encompassing all classes of floating aids to navigation was spotted by the one man most suited to address that shortfall.

In 2002 an autobiographical account of Trinity House’s recently retired Principal Mechanical Engineer, Adrian Wilkins, appeared in that years’ Trinity House Newsletter. During Adrian’s twenty-seven-year career he witnessed at first-hand the many far-reaching changes to international buoyage and other floating aids prompted by the meteoric progress of new technology. In setting out his notes the kernel of a book was created.

To best gauge the breadth of the material included, one can do no better than to quote directly from Adrian’s own Conclusion that appears on page 65:

“Buoys have provided a visual to navigation for at least 700 years. They have marked dangers or the edge of fairways, where it is not practical to construct a fixed structure or where the danger, such as a sandbank, may move. While the first buoys simply provided a daymark, their function eventually developed as a platform to carry fog signals, lights and latterly various radio aids.

The first lightvessels, while being larger than buoys and providing better daymarks, were primarily conceived to be able to carry lights, thus required people living on the vessel to maintain them.

The construction of buoys and lightvessels followed boat and ship building practices progressing from wood to iron and then steel.

Modern paint systems will allow steels buoys to stay on station for at least five or six years and there are many examples of steel buoys that are over fifty years old and the majority of surviving lightvessels will be of this age. There are even a few examples of iron buoys that have been regularly overhauled during their working life and have been found to be over 100 years old.

The majority of new buoys are now made from some form of moulded plastic with a steel structure core and possibly an aluminium structure, rather than the riveted iron structure of 100 years ago.

In the past 300 years mooring methods have changed surprisingly little. We still generally use steel chains connected to simple sinkers that have been made from concrete or cast iron. Some mooring designs have been developed to reduce the swinging circle of the moored buoy and others for fast tidal conditions. Tensioned moorings may be used in environmentally sensitive areas to prevent the moorings damaging the sea bed and modern synthetic rope may be used for very deep water moorings where the buoy would be unable to support the weight of a chain mooring. Rubber chord has been successfully deployed where there is a sufficient tidal range and positional accuracy is still required. The quality and reliability of these moorings has achieved a greater importance as the on station life of buoys has increased.

Maintenance must be carried out on a regular, or less frequent, basis; cleaning is still required to remove salt deposits and bird fouling from the daymark, solar panels, lantern, racon and A/S equipment. Marine growth has to be removed from the buoy body and this becomes a more difficult problem as the time between servicing visits to the buoy increases.

The need to provide lights on buoys saw eminent scientists and engineers develop lighting systems at the cutting edge of technology in oil lamps, gas lights and then electric lighting. In more recent times solar power systems and low-powered aids to navigation technology have enabled longer range lights, racons and A/S to be carried on buoys operating in temperate latitudes and simplified the modernisation of the few remaining lightvessels.

It will be interesting to see which material achieves dominance in the construction of buoys and what part buoys and lightvessels eventually play as an aid to navigation by the end of this century.”

Adrian was to go on to complete nearly forty years in his profession. His book was published and marketed solely through IALA in 2014 (see the IALA website) which is a great pity and a major drawback as such an important and authoritative work demands the widest access.

Sadly, Adrian passed away recently. His widow, Jeanne, though, clearly recognised the potential of the book’s wider appeal and is now actively engaged in its world-wide promotion.

A History of Floating Aids to Navigation by Adrian H Wilkins. Published by IALA/AISM Paperback, illustrated, A4, 84pp.  ISBN 978-2-910312-01-5 RRP €18

Note: This article was previously published in Issue 112 of the Association of Light Keeper's Lamp.

Scottish Lighthouse Pioneers – Travels with the Stevensons in Orkney and Shetland by Paul A. Lynn
Reviewed by Gerry Douglas-Sherwood

Uh - oh, I thought, as I slit open the brown box from Whittles Publishing and spotted the mention of “Stevensons” included on the dust sleeve of the book within. Another book on the Stevensons? It seems like only a short while ago we were gasping with wonder at Alison  Morrison-Low’s exhaustive and deeply erudite work “Northern Lights” (2010), preceded by that evergreen “must have” volume by Bella Bathurst “The Lighthouse Stevensons” (1999) : essential reading for all pharologists and still to be found at better car boot sales and charity shops, witnessed by the fact I was offered a free copy only the other day; and most recently  “Scottish Lighthouses” by Michael A. W. Strachan (2016).

So why re-tread old and well established paths, especially when the undoubted eminence of such a famous and talented family as the Stevensons has been proved beyond doubt time and time again? I tend to think the question has already partly been answered: time rolls on unnervingly; books are read once with enthusiasm then parked away on a dusty shelf; publishing methods change; interests need freshening for each new generation of reader. Even maritime aids to navigation are in a constant state of evolution. Whatever would the Stevensons make of lighthouse automation; and the concept of flight where routine lighthouse access can be accomplished in minutes rather than hours, or even days? Paul Lynn has simply brought things up to date.

The  gist of this book is neatly summed up by its title and first chapter “From John o’ Groats to Muckle Flugga”, delineating the lighthouses of Orkney, Fair Isle and Shetland, plus a run-down of the most famous and notorious lights to be erected on the Northern Isles. So much information could well have blossomed into yet another unwieldly, hefty tome, only readable when supported on the most substantial kitchen table. But no, Paul has avoided such Sirenic lures by maintaining a course encompassed by the remarkable eye-witness accounts so carefully noted (how lucky for us!) by those two great men of letters, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Liberally supported by familiar and newly published illustrations, together with a set of clear, useful maps and drawings, the reader soon embarks on this glorious, strongly empathetic adventure. To maintain some sense of proportion with regard to the fearfully complicated Stevenson family, each chapter deals with different aspects of their lives, their history and the socio-political pressures of the late 18th and 19th centuries they had to overcome. This is not just about re-tracing the Stevenson voyages, it is also a keenly observed guide to one of the most dramatic, rough-hewn areas of the British Isles that, beautifully packaged by Whittles, will appeal to historians, armchair naturalists and holiday makers alike.

Scottish Lighthouse Pioneers: Travels With the Stevensons
Whittles Publishing 2017

ISBN 978 1 84995 265 1

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