Another true story; a tale of sailors, sun and strawberries.
I have always loved the sea. Living near Blackrock, south of Dublin, I spent many days in my youth searching around the rocks at low tide, trying to catch shrimp or crabs unawares. I would walk the length of either or both piers at Dunleary Harbour, just south of Dublin city, as I was always drawn to the yachts that moored there, and even more so to the small fishing boats that set out from there and nearby Dalkey harbour to tend lobster pots off Dalkey Island and elsewhere around the bay. I would also spend many a summer's day cycling down to Bray to walk along the narrow beaten path along Bray Head, watching the sea to try and spot a glimpse of the Kish Lighthouse, as it flashed its signal through the clouds or haze hanging over the Irish sea, telling the ships how to find their way into Dublin Port.
Thus it was with a certain degree of delight that, in the summer of 1988, I found myself working as a trainee at the Engineering Depot of the Commissioners of Irish Lights - the organisation responsible for maintaining the lighthouses around Ireland - based in Dunleary. It was practice that the Commisioners would take one trainee for the summer selected from the third year of the course I was studying in college, and my name was one of those selected for interview. The interview was almost like a guided tour of the facility, which as a publicly funded organisation, could not be averse to public relations. I particularly remember being shown a mercury tilt switch, and being told that the Commissioners were only people allowed to use them in Ireland, mainly because the only other people who wanted to use them were the IRA, who used them as bomb triggers. As the interviewer, who was the head of the engineering workshop where I would be based, was showing me around old unused lighthouse lenses and other artifacts, he suddenly suggested that I should visit the Maritime Museum nearby, and for a moment I thought he meant that I should go straight away, such was the urgency of his suggestion. But the thought soon left his mind as he moved on to the next item on the tour, and I could tell that he was enjoying the tour he was giving me more than I was, as a grandfather would share his memories with a grandson who was willing to listen and eager to learn. I found out relatively quickly that I had got the job, and duly turned up one June morning to begin work.
My duties there consisted mainly of helping out the team of engineers who traveled around the lighthouses of Ireland repairing any broken electrical equipment. In that summer, they would also be installing the computer equipment that would allow the automation of all the lighthouses around the coast, which were to become unmanned the following year. In the free time I had, which was a lot, I had the run of the lab to experiment with and try out the equipment I found there. In the course of my time there I played with motors, solar panels and a ton of other stuff, and also got some experience of making printed circuit boards. All in all it would prove to be valuable experience for me in my final year in college, as it gave me the opportunity to see real life applications of much of the theory we were learning.
The one day, however, that will stick out in my memory as the most enjoyable, was the day I was allowed to join one of the engineers on what was called the "Land Crew" for an offshore service team. Any time a team went out to service one of the offshore buoys that marked the shipping lanes around the country, an engineer had to be in attendance at the nearest land station, in case any problems arose. On a beautiful sunny day in July, I went with Knut, one of the electronic engineers, down to the Wicklow Head lighthouse to act as a land crew for a team servicing the Codling Lanby, a large automated navigation buoy in the south Irish sea. Each of the engineers kept most of the tools they would need in their cars as a matter of course, and since we were not planning to do any actual maintenance that day (our duties would involve answering the radio, assuming no emergencies arose), we left reasonably quickly, and drove down the coast in relatively rare Irish sunshine. Talk along the way was mundane chat, and gradually drifted to the subject of the strawberries being sold along the roadside. Knut advise me that one should never buy from the places that have stalls on the roadside, as the traffic blows up dust which dirties the strawberries on display. It became clear that Knut was a fan of strawberries, and was intent on acquiring some that day.
As we passed the entrance to one farm, Knut slammed on the brakes, and reversed back up to the gate. There was a signpost that indicated strawberries were on sale, pointing inward towards the farm, but no actual strawberries in sight. This, he assured me, was a good sign. That the owner of this farm knew enough to keep their produce clear of the dust raised by the road indicated that his farmer grew good strawberries, and Knut's excitement grew as we drove up to the farmhouse. He got out, and negotiated the purchase of two punnets, and when he got back in the car he exclaimed with feverish determination that "Now we must get some fresh cream!" A detour into the local town and a short stop at a grocery store, where we also bought some sandwiches for lunch, put that problem behind us, and we continued on to the lighthouse, arriving around 11AM.
The lighthouse was manned by two middle aged to elderly men. Since the lighthouses were being automated, there had been no new hirings for some time, so all the lighthouse crews were getting old. They were happy to have company, and as one of them showed me around their cramped quarters, the other went with Knut to contact the offshore service team. By the time I got back, Knut had established contact with the boat, confirmed that everything was in order, and thus had dispensed with our duties for the morning. He had also dispensed with his shirt, and was sitting outside on the observation deck, stripped to the waist, eating his sandwich and slurping a carton of milk. I too took off my shirt and joined him. Once we had finished with our sandwiches, it was on to the strawberries, which were delicious, but Knut was lamenting the fact that the cream did not have long enough to cool properly in the tiny little fridge the two lighthouse keepers used. Lunch was followed by a check in with the crew on the boat, who were having some troubles and wanted us to remotely trigger a few switches on the buoy, which was remotely controlled from a panel newly installed in the lighthouse, and we went back out to snooze in the sun, until the appointed time for the final check-in with the boat crew which would signal the end of our day's work. We gathered up the rubbish we had brought with us, for the lighthouse did not get regular pickups, and thanked our hosts as we set off for home.
As the sun meandered towards the cover of the Wicklow hills, the ride home along the coast road was cool and refreshing, with the windows open and the salty sea air blowing in our faces, soothing the flushed tingle of the sunburn we had gained earlier in the day. As we arrived back at the depot it was close to finishing time, so I lazily tidied my desk before heading off to enjoy a cool pint of Guinness at a nearby pub. I looked down to the harbour, and the men tying up their boats after another day on the water. They were glad, probably, that they had seen one more day of good weather as they plied their trade at its mercy. As the last of that sunshine drew shadows that stretched on the pavement around me, I too was glad that on one of the rare days that an Irish summer had graced us with some summer weather, I was lucky enough not to be stuck indoors.
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