The people behind the beacons of hope that are lighthouses

Of the 206 stone lighthouses that were built in Greece not long after the 1821 revolution, 120 remain. They and another 1,280 simple metal structures comprise the present network. All of them rely on service crews that arrive by sea. Every year, from March to November, the Navy’s Lighthouse Service sends two boats, the Lykoudis and the Karavoyiannos, to repair and maintain the network. The crew and a team of lighthouse technicians and keepers, travel the 15,000-kilometer Greek coastline to carry out the necessary work on 1,400 beacons. Our journey on the Lykoudis begins after 2 a.m. We set out from Adamantas on the island of Milos. The sea is calm and a light wind is with us. The ship looks more like a commercial craft than a naval one, since it has no weapons and the only reminder of its naval identity are its colors and the uniforms of the officers, crew, technicians and keepers. As the first light of day reveals the horizon, we see our destination: Ananes, a cluster of three rocky islets southwest of Adamantas. The lighthouse is on the peak of the central islet, 82 meters above sea level. The ship comes to life as the team starts getting its equipment together. Everything they need is in the hold and the bows, batteries, generators, replacement parts, reflectors, photocells, regulators, tubs of paint, and old, forgotten items such as acetylene cylinders that were used some years ago in lighthouses. The team comprises two technicians and five lighthouse keepers who have left their posts for a while to help the service in its work. Each of them has a story to tell. Vassilis lives at the Kastellorizo lighthouse with seven infantrymen and Nikitas, one of the oldest serving lighthouse keepers. Giorgos and Stamatis work in turns at the lighthouse on Tzia. Nikos lives on Zakynthos, but his lighthouse is nearby at Katakolo, and he goes home on weekends. Leonidas, a former cameraman, is now at the Serifos lighthouse, Panayiotis, the head of the team, and Vangelis are the only ones who live in Athens and, when they are not traveling, work at the service in Piraeus. All of them are young, 25-35, and they share the same attitude to their jobs. «To me, lighthouses mean solitude, tranquility. The sea, wind, rain,» says Vassilis. «I’m being transferred soon. I want take my wife to live with me at the lighthouse.» The inflatable craft approaches and the team gets to work. The ascent is hard, a serious climb. The materials are passed from hand to hand and though it is barely dawn, drops of perspiration start appearing on the faces of the team. It doesn’t help that there is not even a hint of a breeze. After a cigarette break we set out again. From the peak it’s a direct line to the lighthouse. A fisherman offshore in a caique calls out that we’ve taken the wrong path, but the team keeps going. All paths here lead to the lighthouse. The pace picks up when the hardest part is done, but a stumble sends a battery flying down the cliff. The first smiles of the day darken to irritation. There’s no alternative; somebody has to go back and get another one. The rest of us keep going. «It’s hard work. And this is summer. You should see what it is like if a lamp goes out in winter,» says Giorgois. »We’ve been stranded by foul weather on a rocky islet. And we don’t come out in groups of ten like now. You have to cart all that stuff up on your own like a donkey. But I love the job; that’s why I do it. Besides, I’m 32 and I’ve begun to understand myself. That’s why I tell the others: ‘Take it easy, because what you do will come back to haunt you.’» Solar energy «Okay, we shouldn’t complain,» says Nikos, the son and grandson of lighthouse keepers. «In the past they had to carry 80-100-kilo cylinders of acetylene up here. We’re all right.» It takes 45 minutes to reach our destination. The prefabricated lighthouse certainly has none of the magic of a stone lighthouse, but the manmade structure on the barren rock in the middle of the sea is still a beacon of hope. «Nowadays most lighthouses look like this one,» explains Panayiotis. «Their magic comes from the emotions they evoke, rather than their appearance. Most of them, even the stone ones, operate on solar energy, and just a few on mains electricity. The size of the lamp, solar reflectors and batteries depends on the amount of illumination required. Solar energy is collected by the reflector and stored in the batteries. When the sun sets, the photocells assist the lamp and the lighthouse operates till dawn. When the weather is bad, the batteries enable the lighthouse to operate for 15 days.» The methodical maintenance process begins. Measuring the solar generator to check that the batteries are being charged properly. Checking the battery, the reflector, the regulator, the lamp and finally cleaning the optic. Once the system has been checked, the lighthouse is painted white to stand out amid the clouds and waves. Out journey is just at the beginning. The first mission of the day is successfully accomplished. The inflatable craft returns to the Lykoudis to continue the trip. At each lighthouse something unexpected happens to change the day’s itinerary. Paximadi, Antymilos, Strongilo. Last stop is Akradia, a rocky islet to the left of the entrance to the port of Milos. This last lighthouse is a square tower with a deserted lighthouse keeper’s residence. It is 107 years old. Though the gas-powered lamp has been replaced by an electric generator, you can sense its age as the dilapidated building trembles beneath your feet. As the horizon disappears with the last light of the day, the Lykoudis passes the last lighthouses of the trip, in the port, and moors at Adamantas, ready to go on to Kythnos and Syros the following day. This article first appeared in the August 13 edition of «K,» Kathimerini’s color supplement.