July2009 - NI HKG

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Hong Kong, SAR, China
                   
Waglan Island
                                                               
               
On 9 May members of the Hong KongBranch,    China were fortunate to be able to visitWaglan    Island lighthouse, with the permission and assistance of the Marine Department.
               
Visits are rare because the island is a restricted area, but such is the fame and significance of the lighthouse among professional mariners that permission was granted and three staff members from Mardep's Aids to Navigation Unit agreed to conduct the visit. Perhaps it is a testament to the enduring appeal of lighthouses that Simon S W Mak, F T Leung and Y K Leung all gave up their free time to guide us and explain the history of the island. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and made it a truly memorable trip.
               
Many mariners will recall making landfall here and passing the light on their  way into one of the most exciting ports in the world, so the visit had great significance for the 30 members and guests who assembled in Causeway Bay and boarded the Swire junk for the one-hour voyage to Waglan.
               
The date of our visit was significant because, by happy coincidence, the lighthouse commenced operation on the 9 May 1893. For any man-made structure in Hong Kong to last 116 years is remarkable, and Waglan    Island lighthouse is one of only five in the territory  which survive from before the Second World War.
               
The need for lights along the coast was recognised as trade expanded in the nineteenth century, and with theSuez Canal due to open in 1869 government appointed a naval surveyor, Commander Reed, to investigate suitable locations in the port approaches. In 1867 he recommended Waglan    Island, which overlooks the south-eastern approaches, and Gap Rock to the south ofHong Kong    Island, which covered the route to Singapore. Unfortunately, neither location was within Hong Kong waters at the time, so Commander Reed's suggestions were not pursued and Hong Kong's first lighthouse was built at Cape d'Aguilar in 1875.
               
Twenty years later the proposal was revived, and the Chinese authorities were approached for assistance. Approval was granted, and Waglan Lighthouse was built by the Light Department of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs.
               
It became one of the first two lights inAsia to employ the latest mercury rotation technology. Burning mineral oil, the light `floated' on a bath of mercury which eliminated friction and permitted rotation as often as once every fifteen seconds. This technique, invented in 1890, allowed lighthouses to be identified by the pattern of light flashes they produced a system which remains in use today. The lighthouse was run by the Chinese Maritime Customs fromShanghai until the lease of theNew    Territories in 1898. It was officially handed over to the control of the Hong Kong government on the 1 January 1901.
               
Approaching from Lei Yue Mun, Waglan does not look particularly inspiring, even on a glorious spring day with a lively breeze. It is the smallest of the Po Toi Islands and rises only about 70 metres above sea level in an irregular hump, with a line of low, rocky terrain stretching to the north. The light tower, at only 16 metres high, does not dominate the scene inbroad daylight in quite the same way as the light dominates the approaches at night. It is only when you step ashore that the magic begins to take effect.
               
After only a short walk past old fuel and water tanks, we reached the lighthouse compound itself, which houses an automatic weather station, VTC radar tower and microwave link as well as the lighthouse. None of the modern technology has the appeal of the lighthouse, though, which immediately draws the eye with its immaculate red and white livery.
               
Inside, it is a delight. The bolted cast iron sections show no signs of wear, and a cast iron staircase leads up around the curving sides of the tower past occasional brass portholestowards the light. The views from the top are truly spectacular, although the heat from the lamps is enough to remind the visitor of the true purpose of the tower. The intensity of the light is over one million candelas, and its signature two flashes every 20 seconds can be seen at a range of 26 nautical miles.
           
           
               
The lighthouse was gazetted as an historical building under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance on 29 December 2000.
               
Sadly, the surrounding buildings which once housed the keepers and the machinery are not protected. The island was extensively damaged by bombing during the war and most of the buildings were reconstructed after 1945. Since 1989 the light has been fully automated and thehouses abandoned to the elements. They have not fared well and are now in a sad state of decay. This is a tragedy, because they lie along the spine of the island and offer incredible views in all directions. While the houses may not have been luxurious, they appear to have been comfortable and some interesting period features remain. A machine shed houses the remains of three enormous generators, and the winch which drew the trolley up from the jetty still has the hoisting wire attached.
               
The site is an obvious candidate for renovation and preservation. The views alone would make it worthwhile, but the history of the site gives it an added importance.
               
Captain Alan Loynd FNI
           
           
                                                               
Seaways July 2009
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19 July 2018
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