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24 March 2015

Cape St George Lighthouse

Simply put the Cape St George Lighthouse was a disaster in organization and decision making.
Commissioned in 1860 and in operation for 39 years, it was embroiled in controversy even before construction began. The lighthouse was built in the wrong location, despite repeated warnings leading up to the lights construction.
The poor old lighthouse never stood a chance, It was suppose to be a lifesaving, guiding light for mariners, a beacon for advancements in coastal navigation and safety, instead it became a hazard, and was blamed for many shipping mishaps while in operation.
This letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, May 1891, some 31 years after the first rays of light shone across the Tasman Sea, from R. A. Kearney, Intercolonial Pilot, clearly outlines and reflects what many captains plying the south coast were saying about the lighthouse.



Sir,-On three different occasions during the past four years I have had a narrow escape from loosing a fine ship on the particular part of the coast,  in consequence of the absurd and useless position the light is placed in.
Upon the first occasion I was conducting a large ship, the Thorniebank, of Glasgow, from Melbourne to Newcastle.  We had passed inside Montague Island about 9p.m., there being and unusually strong current setting to the southward offshore,  which we were anxious to avoid.  At midnight the ship was abreast of Bateman’s Bay, so I hauled her out N.N.E1/2 E. magnetic to clear the land and to open Jervis Bay light.  The wind was blowing fresh from the S.S.E,. and the Thorniebank was travelling over 12 knots,  and carrying as much canvas as she could fairly stagger under,  as we were desirous to making all we could of the wind whilst it lasted. 
    However, just as daylight was coming in the lookout man reported, “land close ahead”.  and looking along the lee side sure enough we were within two miles of where the steamer Corangamite now lies at the bottom.  I need scarcely describe the scene on board when the helm was put hard down and the ship bought to the wind with such a press of canvas on her.   Immediately she heeled over Captain Erakine,  one of the oldest commanders in the Melbourne trade,  came rushing on deck,  but when he saw the position of the ship,  with the Cape St George close on our lee-beam and looming as high as out mastheads, he was absolutely speechless for a time.   When he did speak he said calmly,  “Where is Jervis Bay light,  Pilot?” I replied,  ‘'It is round the corner somewhere,  captain,”  and immediately afterwards the light opened up clear of the land to the southward of it.
The next narrow squeak I had was with the fine four-mastered ship Waterloo;  and my third and last experience was three weeks ago with a Norwegian barque,  which I was piloting from Adelaide to Newcastle.

Now, I am certain that when the substance of this letter is bought before the notice of the Marine Board as usual the first thing that body will say is that I had no business being so close inshore.”  But I must unhesitatingly state that I am the better judge of such matters. I have been a pilot round the whole coast of Australia for the past 11 years, and many dark,  dirty night I am off Sydney Heads when the members of the Marine Board are in the warm beds.   And, as regards hugging the land,  why during the season of westerly winds now fast setting in,  if one of those large iron ships bound from Melbourne or Adelaide  (in ballast)  to Newcastle were to get off the land she would not get hold of it again perhaps for a month.  And again ballast costs from 4s to 5s 3d per tone at Melbourne.  Therefore, taking into consideration the low rate of freights ruling between England and this country,  shipmasters cannot afford to half load their vessels with Ballast at the above figure to be thrown over the ships side in Newcastle.  Consequently the ship being light in ballast has to be kept close inshore so as to take advantage of the land breezes,  also to ensure the safety of the vessel,  the master employs the services of a “coast pilot” – not to relieve him of the responsibility,  as some people may think,  but to assist him in the safe navigation of the ship close to land.

Of course,  with the wind hanging to the eastward any prudent navigator would avoid the land and keep a respectable distance off shore.

Regarding Cape St George light,  there are a score of ship masters out of the port of Sydney who will bare me out in the assertion that the lighthouse on this part of the coast is absolutely useless as a guide to shipping bound north or south, or for entering Jervis Bay, and if the government of New South Wales do not take steps to alter the present site,  believe me,  some terrible disaster will yet occur.  Sooner or later the question will be, ‘Who is to Blame?”   

R. A. KEARNEY.  Intercolonial Pilot.  May 7 1891


The controversy continued, and representations from ship captains and pilots eventually led to the Point Perpendicular lighthouse being built and the light at Cape St George being extinguished in 1899.

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