Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Lighthouse Keeper & the Big Wave

Who hasn't seen this amazing image from 1989? It's French photographer Jean Guichard's stunning photo of France's La Jument Lighthouse in a December storm. Look closely, and you'll see a lighthouse keeper standing in the doorway.
Within seconds after this photo was taken, the wave inundated the lighthouse and crashed up the sides of the 154-foot concrete and block tower. The concussion of the wave hitting the lighthouse must have been deafening!
Did the lightkeeper in the doorway survive? Was he washed away? Drowned?
I've been asked these questions so many times at talks and during interviews!
Let's settle the question, here and now--
There's good news: He did survive! He heard a helicopter and came out on the gallery at the base of the lighthouse to look for it. He and his comrades on the lighthouse were expecting to be taken off the tower that day because of damage the storm had already done to La Jument Light. The violent wind and waves had torn off the front door, flooded the interior, and washed away furniture. None of the lightkeepers were injured, but they could no longer remain in the damaged lighthouse.
The helicopter the keeper saw was not coming to rescue him. Instead, it had Jean Guichard aboard, taking storm pictures as he leaned out the open door. (The relief helicopter would come later.) It was hardly a day to be over the North Atlantic snapping pictures! Guichard was well aware of that, but he also knew the weak of heart seldom get amazing pictures. Guichard's storm images have since become famous. The one above has sold over a million copies in poster format. One of the posters says "Courage" on the bottom. Was it the lightkeeper's courage, or Guichard's? Or maybe it was the bravery of the pilot of Guichard's helicopter!
The courageous keeper's name is Theodore Jean Malgorne. I have a photo of him in my 2007 book The Lightkeepers' Menagerie. He was at La Jument Lighthouse in 1989, right before the lighthouse was automated and its lightkeepers were removed; after that he transferred to Ile-Vierge Lighthouse, one of the tallest in the world at 271-feet. Jean Guichard kindly gave me the photo of Malgorne (above) sitting on the rocks at Ile-Vierge with his dog, Wyckice. Malgorne had a dog at every lighthouse where he served, including La Jument. At the time I wrote the book, Malgorne had nearly 40 years in the French lighthouse service. He is undoubtedly retired by now and enjoying well-deserved quieter days.
The lighthouses Malgorne kept for so many years take harsh punishment from some of the worst storms the North Atlantic can brew. This is the Brittany Coast of France, and Bretons know the definition of a storm! Between 1888 and 1904 some thirty ships wrecked in this area, as well as the Drummond Castle in 1896 with the death of 250 passengers--a sobering statistic that forced construction of La Jument Lighthouse. It was a challenging task to build the lighthouse on a stump of rock at sea, and even after the beacon was placed in service in 1911, the tower remained unstable for many years, with cracks forming and masonry deteriorating. Large waves made it vibrate and move with frightening intensity! Repeated repairs finally shored it up by 1940.
The great sea-swept lighthouses that stand along the Brittany Coast are a tribute to the engineering skills of the French and their great concern for the mariner. La Jument Light stands guard on a rock called Le Vieille Jument---"the old mare"---about 620-feet south of the island Ushant. (The French call it Île d'Ouessant.) The island has four other lighthouses around it, warning mariners of its craggy outline, which looks like a sea monster's head with its mouth open to the southeast. (Can you see the monster in the NASA image below?) Ushant Island is a dangerous obstacle for shipping along the Brittany Coast, with a ragtag following of smaller islands trailing to the southwest. Much of the shipping leaving and entering the southern part of the England Channel passes here, grateful for the lighthouses, even in this age of modern, satellite navigation.
Below is a Wikipedia image of La Jument on a nicer day. It's a lovely tower, built in the years 1904-1911. It was staffed until 1991 when automation took over the operation of the light.
Lighthouse Digest has an article about Jean Guichard's 2001 visit to Maine. He's shown in the photo below (from Kathy Finnegan) signing books and calendars for visitors to the Lighthouse Depot store in Wells, Maine.
This website has a sobering film showing the relief and replacement of lighthouse keepers on La Jument. Those frightened of heights need not apply!!

1 comment:

  1. I have this photo framed on the wall in my office. It has been the topic of many conversations. Many asking if the man is real or photoshopped. I will print this article and keep it on the table nearby for those that want to read about it.


I welcome your comments, photos, stories, etc.!