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Fog horn, lightkeepers still relevant in St. Anthony

Morris Green, one of St. Anthony’s two lightkeepers tours the grounds at Fox Point on Monday, Sept. 10.
Morris Green, one of St. Anthony’s two lightkeepers tours the grounds at Fox Point on Monday, Sept. 10. - Thom Barker

Light station not just a tourist attraction

ST. ANTHONY, N.L.

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

CANADA

It’s a lovely late summer afternoon in St. Anthony. The sun warms the surface of the sea creating moisture in the air. As afternoon gives way to evening, the ambient air temperature drops, that moisture condenses and fog starts to form. First it just tickles the hilltops, but then rapidly cascades into the harbour.

Up on Fox Point, two small sensors on a pole next to the lighthouse detect visibility has dropped to less than a quarter mile and trigger the fog horn. Its low tone, blasting once a minute for three seconds, and reverberating off the rugged coastline, is at once a mournful and soothing sound, signalling danger, but offering a guide for mariners to navigate safely home.

For decades, fog horns were a mainstay of every harbour big and small, but with advances in automation and navigation technologies, the future of staffed light stations was called into question.

Twice—in the mid-1990s and late 2000s—the Canadian Coast Guard looked at automating and de-staffing all of its light stations, but the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans studied the issue in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia and found “overwhelming opposition.”

“What they were most concerned about is the loss of public safety-related services performed by lightkeepers, most of which are preventative in nature,” a 2011 Senate report stated.

“Public safety issues were forcefully brought up on both coasts, where the term ‘eyes and ears’ of the coast is bestowed on lightkeepers and where people hold the Coast Guard to its larger safety mandate and its motto of ‘Safety First, Service Always.’”

In St. Anthony, the lighthouse and fog horn are largely thought of as tourist attractions, but Fox Point continues to be a working coast guard station staffed seven days a week by two lightkeepers on a 28-day rotation.

Morris Green, from Raleigh, a 31-year coast guard veteran, is one of St. Anthony’s two lightkeepers. He said while the job has changed over the years, there’s still plenty to keep them busy.

“Summertime is the most busy time, of course, we have the tourism here,” he said.

In addition to being ad-hoc tour guides, they check the light and horn twice a day to make sure everything is working properly, maintain the property, log weather reports five times a day and field calls from fishing and tour boat operators about visibility and sea state. Mariners can also contact them via VHF radio, for help with routing through the ice, for example. And they generally keep watch for signs of trouble and even suspicious activity such as smuggling.

While all big ships and many smaller vessels are now equipped with GPS technology, Green says there is still utility to the fog horn.

“It gives a sense of where you’re at on the water,” he said. “The horn, however far you can hear it, you know where the horn (is), so, of course, you’re going to chase the sound.

“When you’re talking about the local area, of course, because the fishermen live all around here, there’s a sense of security, without a doubt.”

Green has also grown to like the new tourism aspect of the job.

“I think it’s a great thing, because I see people come here and I can see the excitement to just to come here and see those places and do the pictures and all this,” he said.

St. Anthony is one of 23 staffed light stations in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are more than 50 others that are fully automated.

For Green, who spent most of his career in isolated, remote stations, being in St. Anthony is like a long-awaited reward.

“My life was always off shore, by chopper or by boat to get to work,” he said. “To get back here, this was always, I would say, my dream, someday, if the stations would stay open that I would get back here after the run that I had.”

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