The sea is dangerous. It is a hazardous place both to live and work. Unsinkable ships have sunk, unspeakable trials and tribulations inflicted. The terror and the tragedy, the hope and the heroism borne by the sea upon the people whose lives depend on it, are legendary.
No surprise then that the maritime world has provided us with much symbolism that reflect our hankering for safety and stability in a world that stubbornly refuses to remain where we left it when we went to bed last night. Anchors, maps, a compass, a ship’s wheel, buoys, ships, fish and flags, seamen’s knots… All of these have gained prominence and symbolic applications beyond the maritime world.
Oh, and lighthouses too, of course. Some of these symbols reflect a romantic fascination with things maritime, others have regained contemporary and no less deadly applications – black flags with scull and crossbones – and some run the risk of becoming redundant altogether.
Lighthouses are in the latter category. All but redundant now, replaced by hi-tech navigational instruments, lighthouses are abandoned and falling into disrepair. But let’s not forget the symbolism achieved by lighthouses in their heyday.
- Sources of light piercing darkness and fog, lighthouses warned of the proximity of land. For lighthouses are almost always land-based structures.
- Light cleverly manipulated to enable the calculation of one’s place in vast empty space.
- Instruments therefore, for plotting direction, of safe passage and assured arrival at an intended destination.
I can also imagine that lighthouses were, besides mere beacons, a reminder that someone out there is looking out for us – we are not alone. That not so far from here, a community of landlubbers await our arrival and attempt to secure our safety and help us along. Lighthouses once connected seafarers with land-based care.
Of course lighthouses have become redundant with good reason: they have been replaced by far more reliable precision instruments of navigation. Their demise should not be lamented when technology has surpassed their application and has vastly improved seafarers’ lives.
But there is something about lighthouses, isn’t there…? The simple awareness that out there somewhere is someone, and not just something, that knows of us and cares enough to keep the fire burning and the rotation going.
People cannot be replaced. Caring people are of greater value than all the artificial intelligence generated by state of the art technologies. It is the humanness of us that reacts lovingly to people in distress and prompts interventions of care. One cannot do without love.
Seafarers’ centres, even though they’ve been around for almost as long as lighthouses, never gained iconic status. There is no template, no single image depicting seafarers’ centres that is generally recognised as a facility for the wellbeing of seafarers. In fact, centres are off the public’s radar altogether. We who work in them and from them may also run the risk of underestimating their value, and underrate our role. Money, or the lack of it, and the belittling of welfare have led to shrunken and often unmanned facilities. And don’t get me wrong, they’re better than nothing. But you can’t do entirely without people.
Well, we might argue, the facilities that exist, whether peopled or not, are themselves evidence of human intervention and should suffice. Much like automated lighthouses.
I maintain it’s the people in ports, there only for the sake of seafarers, that make the difference. ICMA’s workforce are out there right now meeting face to face real people on, or from, ships. Our facebook theme changes today to pay homage to lighthouses. But symbolically only: really our appreciation is for the people who shine light on seafarers’ lives. I pray that the metaphor of lighthouses and their sweeping beams of light will reinforce understanding of our role in the lives of seafarers.
The light itself is more intangible than its “house”. But the light is not less real. In fact, it’s the lighthouses are for passing, the enlightenment remains. God bless all you lighthouse keepers.