Friday, May 23, 2008

Averting disaster at Chickens Rock!

Gazing northwards from my kayak (bobbing in a small eddy formed behind the protective arm of rock, jutting out from the main reef known as ‘Chickens Rock’) to the S.E. tip of the Calf of Man, two lighthouses; one built about 30m higher than the other, line up perfectly. And off to the side, another building housing the foghorn, and a third more modern light.
Often joked about as being a mistake in the planning stage, (the first too low down to cast its light far afield, the second too high and was lost in the mist… The siting of the initial two towers were purposely so, (commissioned by Northern Lights) completed in February 1818, as a method of alerting passing ships to the exact location of Chickens Rock. It has been said that the reef got its name from the sightings of Stormy Petrels there (known locally as Mother Careys Chickens).
Many ships had been lost around the Calf of Man and general vicinity, and Chickens was directly in the shipping route past the South Coast of the Island, rising up out of very deep water, often near submerged or encased in dense fog. The manned lighthouses carried double revolving lights, replacing previous coal fired ones, and when lined up, navigators knew they were close to or upon the rocks!
It had been deemed impossible to build a lighthouse upon Chickens Rock itself at this time, (the ferocity of the sea put off any potential contractors)... Until the Stevenson family managed the 'impossible' by building the lighthouse on Bell Rock, completed in 1811! As years rolled by and the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse proved excellent, the possibility of one on Chickens was debated again... In true Manx style a lot of talking and communication pre-empted any action, but in 1875 the tower on the famous rock was completed.
Following a fire inside, which involved all three keepers being rescued, meaning a costly refurbishment imminent, it was decided to automate the lighthouse. From 1962 this was completed and "a permanent un-watched electric foghorn was established in November 1968."
(Actual dates for this entry and the above quote came from a publication by W. Lockington Marshall - 'The Calf of Man'. Marshall passed away very recently aged over 100...)

Chickens Rock is one of our more adventurous paddles, and sea conditions can vary the 'rating' from atmospheric to very alarming! I was looking at my footage from a couple of years back leading a couple of paddlers out there, with mist swirling round a gently rolling sea, and the softly muffled intermittant foghorn in the background...
But, in the modern day cost cutting environment it was decided to turn off the Foghorn, (ships were no longer running aground) so the only sound on foggy days around the Calf is the cry of sea birds, and the horn at the modern 'third' lighthouse on the Calf, overlooking the Stack, now also completely automated. The only 'keepers' residing on the Calf now are the seasonal wardens studying the birds and watching over our Manx National Heritage!

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