Wave Washed Lighthouses

by CruiseReady

Brief stories of three fascinating and inaccessible wave washed lighthouses - Rock of Ages Light, La Vieille, and Bell Rock Lighthouse

Sea washed lighthouses, also known as wave washed lights are not as accessible as some other lighthouses. You can't just drive or walk up to them. That's because they weren't built on the coast, as many others were.

They were built out in the water, often on a rock outcropping, or sometimes a small reef or islet that's only visible at low tide. Some of the rocks on which they are built are barely larger than the footprint of the lighthouse itself.

The building of one of these special beacons has never been undertaken lightly. The design and engineering presents special problems, and the construction is no easy task either. Men have died trying!

Once these structures had been erected, the hardships weren't entirely over. The lighthouse keepers who manned them had to possess a special inner metal, one that could draw upon a single minded faithfulness to a task in the midst of an almost cruelly enforced isolation and solitude. The lives of others depended on that absolute faithfulness.

Yet, more wave washed lights were built through the ages than you might suspect. And a few of them still survive. Three of them are featured on this page.





How Inchcape Came to be Known as Bell Rock

According to Legend and Poet Robert Southey

Before I tell you about the Bell Rock Light, I should tell you how the little reef on which it stands came to be known as Bell Rock.

Some 11 miles from the shore of Angus, Scotland, is a reef, once only known as Inchcape.  Though tiny, about 1/4 mile long and only 300' wide, and surrounded by nothing but sea, it was a big hazard.  At lowest tide, part of it was visible above the surface of the water.  Otherwise, it was virtually invisible to mariners, and the water around it was shallow.  Ships wrecked there.  People died there.

Poet Robert Southey


Then, so the story goes, sometime in the 1300's, the Abbot of Arbroath decided to put a bell 

there, as a warning to those sailing the dangerous waters.  He did so, rigging it so that it would clang whenever the the water covered the reef, which was most of the time.

However, within a year Ralph the Rover, a pirate, sailed up to the bell, cut it loose, and watched it sink below the waves.  Later, old Ralph got his come uppance.  His own ship hit the very same reef, and he perished, because there was no bell to warn him away. 

From then, it had a new name, Bell Rock, but continued to be a serious hazard.


Robert Southey, by John James Masquerier [Public domain],

via Wikimedia Commons

Centuries later, the story lived on, and was immortalized in by an English poet.
Here's a link to a page where you can read the ballad of Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey.

While no one has verified the whole truth of this story, some noted historians have labeled it as quite plausible.

Bell Rock Lighthouse Off Scotland's Coast

The Oldest Surviving Wave Washed Light in the World

Sadly,  in 1800, ships and lives were still being lost on Bell Rock. After the loss in 1804 of the HMS York with all hands, parliament decided to accept the proposal by one Robert Stevenson to erect a lighthouse there.

He'd visited the famous Eddystone Light, studied it, and improved on it. (Eddystone was in its third incarnation then, and currently enjoys a fourth.) The improvements to the way the foundation was built were so successful that Steven's tower has lasted for 200 years against the constant battering of the sea.

Bell Rock Light at Inchcape


Against astonishing odds, the tower was completed and lit just under four years after construction began. The dangerous work cost the lives of two 


Living on a ship anchored not far away, the workmen had only four hours each day in which to work, when the tide was low, exposing the highest part of the reef. Fearing irreparable damage to the rock if blasting was done, Stevenson insisted that none be used, necessitating extensive chiseling with pick axes.

The light was finally lit on the first of February, 1811.

 Image courtesy Derek Robertson, CC


An Intresting Side Note


Robert Stevenson, designer of the Bell Rock Light, was the grandfather of the famous writer, Robert Louis Stevenson


The Importance of The Light on Inchcape

It Was Sorely Needed and Has Done Its Job

Before the tower was built, many ships and hundreds lives were lost on the rocks there.  That all changed once Stevenson's work was completed.   

In the 100 years before the beacon was lit, an estimated 600 to 700 vessels met their ends there, with with an unknown number of lives lost, but the count must have been enormous.

In the 200+ years since, only two ships have been lost, one in 1908, and one in 1915.  ALL HANDS were rescued in both instances.

Lighthouse Inspired Art

Bell Rock Lighthouse by J.M.W. Turner

 Bell Rock Lighthouse, by Turner

Bell Rock Lighthouse by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851) P.D, from the Google Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons

To see the original of this work, you'll have to travel to the Scottish National Gallery, in Edinburgh.  Created in 1819, it's an extraordinary art work, inspired by an extraordinary piece of engineering.

You may not be able to hang the original in your living room, but   you can own a reproduction of J.M.W. Turner's work, or read more about the family that produced not only the light on Bell Rock, but also the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped

A Video Cruise-by of Bell Rock Light

August, 2013





La Vieille in French Waters

They Call Her The Old Lady

La Vieille

La Vieille with Mast By Jean-Pierre Hussin / CC-BY-SA-3.0


After many years of planning and five years of construction, a sea washed lighthouse called La Vieille, or The Old Lady, was first lit on September 15, 1887, and the granite based tower still stands there today, nearly 120 years later.

She and her companion light, La Petite Vieille, meaning the little old woman, mark the channel that ships must use to safely navigate a trecherous straight off the coast at  Poite du Raz in northwestern France.

Though accessible now only by helicopter, there had been a smaller tower with a landing / embarkation platform.  That was deconstructed after the light was automated in the 1990's.

Duty at the Old Lady was a hard one, with two keepers assigned at all times.  When it was time for a new keeper to come in and an existing one to rotate out, it wasn't an easy task.  


Boats couldn't just 'dock' at Gorlebella rock, on which the station was built.  They could only get close - weather and seas permitting.  The keepers would throw the end of a line to the boat, which would then be secured.  The keepers had to ride up or down the line (with their belongings) on a ball shaped aparatus that was attached to the line.  Imagine transferring  from a pitching and rolling boat, passing over seething waves, to high rocks, with sharp edges, while hanging on a rope!

Once there, things weren't so pleasant, either.  A story follows. 

A Favor for War Veterans

Wasn't Such a Favor, After All

After WWI, France passed legislation that reserved certain jobs that were considered 'easy' assignments for disabled veterans.  One of those positions was that of lighthouse keeper.

While at some light stations, the duty may have been less arduous than other jobs, that was hardly true at La Vieille. Life in some lighthouses was referred to as 'hell' within the community of keepers.  The Old Lady was one of those.

Getting there and back alone was a challenge for an able bodied man, much less one with disabilities from war wounds.  (See above for details)   Once there, the isolation, together with intensly inhospitable weather, and the continuous assault of the sea against the outside of the tower were enough to unnerve just about anyone.

 Image Source - View of The Old Lady from Pointe du Raz..  Petite Vieille  or the "Little Old Woman" is visible to her left.

In 1925, two disable veterans with punctured lungs were posted there.  In addition, one had lost muscles in an arm and the other had an inoperable leg wound.  These were the men who had to climb up and down the 120 steps to the light to keep it lit.  Their health and mental condition worsened, with both men developing severe nerve damage.  Commendably, the light never went a single night without being lit.

However when it finally became clear that these two men didn't belong at that particular post, it took two more months to rescue them, at which point they were in dreadful shape, and had to be rescued by swimmers, as they were unable to make the rope transfer.

Finally, the law was amended to say that disabled veterans were not to be posted to duty at sea washed lighthouses.

A Boat Ride Past The Old Lady

and The Little Old Woman

Have You Ever Seen a Wave Washed Lighthouse?

(a poll)
  Display results
Not very many people can answer that they have been in one!





Rock of Ages Light

Lake Superior, USA

Rock of Ages Light

Image Source

Not all wave washed lights are out at sea. Some have been built in treacherous inland waterways. Here's an example of one in the United States. It's on a rock about three miles off an island in Lake Superior, and is aptly named the Rock of Ages Light.

The need for a light there was great, as the reef had been the abrupt ending of voyages for a number of ships.

A 50' x 200' outcropping at one end of the offending reef was chosen as the site, and construction becan in 1908.

First lit in 1910, the beacon and fog horn were operated by keepers for 68 shipping seasons. They would arrive in the early spring, and stay at the rock until the season ended in the late fall. The third order Fresnel lens, automated in 1978, was visible for 15 nautical miles.

Replaced by a solar powered light in 1985, the original lens is on display at the Isle Royale National Park ranger station.

You can learn more about the building and history of this historic light station at this reprint from the Keeper's Log.


Don't Sail a "C" Boat near the Rock of Ages


There have been a number of shipwrecks on the Rock of Ages Reef. Three of them, all passenger vessels, stand out. Two of those three were before the lighthouse was built there, and one was afterwards. But these vessels all had one thing in common. They had names beginning with C:

Wreckage of the George M. Cox

  • The Cumberland ran aground on the reef in July of 1877, was abandoned, and sank in August.
  • The Henry Chisholm grounded there in October of 1898, and sank right on top of the Cumberland.
  • The George M Cox met her fate in July, 1933.  She broke up and sank in an October storm, and lies near the other two. 

Submerged wreck of the George M. Cox, PD

The Rock of Ages Light is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are the wrecks of the three ships.

When the George M Cox Wrecked

Everyone Aboard Spent the Night at The Rock of Ages Light
July, 1933
The captain of the George M Cos clearly saw the light through the fog, and heard the foghorn that was sounding to warn the ship away from the reef.  However, he miscalculated, and ran up on the reef.  They were so near the lighthouse, that all passengers and hands made it safely from the foundering ship, and onto the Rock of Ages.  Since a rescue vessel could not arrive until the next day, all 127 souls spent the night at the lighthouse.  

A lighthouse isn't designed to accommodate that many people!  They had take turns , with some of them out in the cold on the rocks at all times.

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society

Needs Help to Save the Rock of Ages Light

Save the Rock of Ages Light

The following video, from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society plainly shows that today, this historic structure is in a sad state, and in need of restoration and preservation.  


Though its grandeur is still apparent, so is its age and disrepair, in some of the pictures you'll see.


To learn more about the efforts on behalf of this beacon, visit their Save the Lighthouse page.


P.D. image, courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Video Visit to the Rock of Ages Light Station

See the Rock of Ages Light

Or See the Weather Data from the Tower

While you can't actually go ONTO the Rock and climb the tower, you can get a good view the lighthouse from the deck of a ferry as it passes by it.  Ferries run daily between Grand Portage, Minnesota, and Isle Royale.

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse tower continues to serve mariners of the Great Lakes.  Not only is it still an active aid to navigation with its automated beacon, but it is also a weather station.  NOAA has installed an array of weather measurment and reporting instruments there, and it is designated as a C-MAN station.

If you are interested, you can see the current weather conditions being reported from the lighthouse.

More Pages about Lighthouses

Five randomly chosen lighthouses from around the world, with pictures and informative briefs on each, and where you can get picture coasters with images of each one on them.
Pictures and brief histories of five different American Lighthouses from five different states, some familiar, and some less so. Where you can get beverage coasters of each one..
The highest and tallest lighthouses in the state of Florida, where they are, how to see them, and some fascinating facts about them.
Updated: 07/28/2017, CruiseReady
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Would You Like to Have Been a Keeper at a Wave Washed Light?

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frankbeswick on 06/30/2018

Southey's poem on the Inchcape finishes with the pirate's ship sinking and his hearing the jubilant devils ringing a bell to celebrate his arrival in Hell, while all all his plunder goes down to the seabed.

frankbeswick on 06/30/2018

Robert Stevenson, who erected the Inchcape light, was from a famous family of engineers who constructed many lighthouses around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. From them came the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The word inch is from the Celtic word inis, which denotes an Island. I do not know what the word cape means in this context.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/29/2018

CruiseReady, Many thanks to you for the article and to FrankBeswick for the information on how the Bell Rock bell was secured!

frankbeswick on 09/09/2017

Southey's poem states "On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
Over the waves its warning rung.
Then mariners knew of the perilous rock
And they blessed the abbot of Aberbrothock

Later Sir Ralph leaned over from the boat
And he cut the bell from the Inchcape float
Quoth Sir Ralph "The next who comes to the rock
Won't bless the abbot of Aberbrothock

Later, of Sir Ralph's doomed vessel
They hear no sound, the swell is strong
Though the wind has fallen they drift along
Then the vessel strikes with a shuddering shock
Oh horror! It is the Inchcape Rock

Southey was into divine vengeance against injustice, as we see also in the poem about an evil bishop who is eaten alive by rats, Bishop Hatto. But this is a legend that does no justice to the bishop. There were several such legends in the Middle Ages.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/08/2017

CruiseReady, Is there any information as to how the Bell Rock bell was secured? It must have been really strong rope to withstand waves and winds.

CruiseReady on 05/18/2015

Thanks! That bit of information about the abbey is good to know. (And isn't that the beauty of a site like Wizzley - the continuous sharing of information?)

frankbeswick on 05/18/2015

Yes, it is the legend of which I was speaking. In the poem the abbey of Aberbrothock was the abbey of Arbroath.

CruiseReady on 05/17/2015

Yes! There's a link I've provided near the end of the section called "How Inchcape Came to be Known as Bell Rock." Is that the same one you are referring to?

frankbeswick on 05/17/2015

There is a poem by Southey about the legend of the Inchcape Rock and the vengeance wrought on the pirate who destroyed the warning bell placed there by the monks.

CruiseReady on 05/17/2015

You are very welcome - thank you for taking the time to read it.

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