International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend (August 19-20)—Hams Hit the High Seas to Raise Historical Awareness

On August 19-20, amateur radio operators will travel by land, sea, or sky to lighthouses and lightships across the globe to participate in International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend (ILLW), hosted by the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society (ARLHS).

This 48-hour event always takes place during the third week of August and serves as an extension of US National Lighthouse Week that heads off the month. It’s a unique opportunity for hams to set up portable shacks in or around lighthouses or lightships to illuminate the historical value of these sites while making some nifty contacts with other hams doing the same. This year’s event will take place from 00.01 UTC on August 19 to 24.00 UTC on August 20. The weekend also doubles as a good excuse to get your steps in and pedometer goals met tromping up lofty spiral staircases for breathtaking views. 

Event Objective

The overall goal of the event is to extend the ARLHS’ purpose: “To promote public awareness of lighthouses and lightships and their need for preservation and restoration, to promote amateur radio, and to foster international goodwill.” It’s a much-needed goal since many lighthouses and lightships have fallen into disrepair. While a fun event for operating hams, the weekend also provides an opportunity to shine a light just as bright as the ones these structures emit on efforts to fund and preserve these valuable historical artifacts for generations to come. 

Operating from a Lightship

As you may have guessed, the light-bearing locations that hams can venture to as part of the event aren’t limited to land. ILLW participants will also operate from lightships—vessels that are anchored or moored to a fixed spot and operate as a floating lighthouse in areas too treacherous, impractical, or otherwise inconvenient to build a lighthouse on land. Mostly built prior to 1967, these large navigational buoys measured 40 feet in diameter and 42 feet high. They were introduced to accomplish the same goal with automatic lights, fog signals, and radio beacons that replaced the people-manned lightships with signature lamps atop high masts and fog signals that took a whole slew of forms to warn ships of danger, including cannon fire, bells (with a bell striker), whistles, sirens, steam trumpets, reed horns, and more, plus radio beacon.

While these ships no longer serve as active servants of nautical safety, there are still many functioning in alternate modes of operation, including the Huron Lightship (LV-103) (Lake Huron) Light, USA-394 in Port Huron, Michigan. It was the last operational lightship to serve the Great Lakes with more than 50 years of at-sea service. Retired in 1970, it is now a part of the Port Huron Museum where it is docked and accessible to museum visitors. It became a National Historic Monument in 1990.

What Else Qualifies as a “Light?”

ILLW participants are also welcome to work other locations that qualify as “lights” as long as they meet the ARLHS’ definition:

Should be recognized by some official government agency as a true navigation beacon; that is, it must now appear, or have in the past appeared on or in an official map, chart, or directory as an aid to navigation (ATON)—nautical, not aeronautical—and be large enough and constructed in such a manner as to physically support an operator and all equipment necessary to sustain a complete ham station for a period of at least an hour.

A bit subjective since hams come in all shapes and sizes, but to be clear, you do not need to be on the light to operate, though it should be able to sustain you if you decided to. The ILLW event guidelines do require that your station be at or adjacent to the light to make it highly visible to the passing public in order to garner more interest in the event and structure. Additionally, poles, day-markers, and such—that might technically be considered navigational beacons—do not qualify as locations to operate from. Other excluded locations include “faux” lights or lighthouses constructed primarily as monuments or tourist attractions that never served as an ATON. Unsure if the lighthouse that’s lighting up your mind qualifies? Check out if it’s on the ARLHS’ list below.

How to Choose an Area of Operation

The ARLHS has done all the hard work for you by putting together the Official ARLHS World List of Lights. Organized as a catalog of sorts, the list contains a short and easily transmitted identification number for each light source that is or has been an aid to navigation and that is sized appropriately to fit an amateur radio operator. It includes 15,527 lighthouses in 234 amateur radio call areas including some that are no longer in existence but were once an ATON.

Recognizing lighthouses that once were in service but no longer exist was a concept very important to ARHLS founder, Jim Wiedner, K2JXW (SK), who wanted to honor the memory of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers throughout history. To accomplish this task, the “Historic” category was created to include locations that once housed a light but are now reduced to rubble or have no remaining physical evidence of the light. And a “Museum” category exists for lights that have moved location and no longer serve ATON duties but may be in use in a museum, as a tourist attraction, or for educational purposes.

The Trinity House Lightship 11 Light, NET-186 falls into this category.It was an in-service lightship that worked the Irish Sea from 1951 to 1988. Built for Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and Gibraltar, LV-11 was used near St. Gowans Banks and Morecambe Bay during its time of operation. The ship was sold to Pounds Marine Service in 1991 for £20,000. Today, it is operating as a pub in Old City Harbour of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Other Lighthouses Well Worth the Airfare, Boat Ride, or Adventurous Excursion

Ham events are always the perfect excuse to plan a trip, take a vacation, and travel to some really cool places. Here are a few favorites from ARHLS’ list:

Tower of Hercules (Torre de Hercules), SPA-276       

They just don’t build structures like they used to, and the Tower of Hercules is tangible proof. It’s the only fully preserved Roman lighthouse remaining today that is still used for maritime signaling and is the oldest still-standing lighthouse in the world. Approximated to have been built near the end of the 1st century or early into the 2nd, it underwent restoration in the 18th century to add technical upgrades for efficiency while keeping the central core of the structure intact. It’s an absolutely stunning piece of history.

Thridrangaviti Lighthouse

DXpeditioners will love visiting Thridrangaviti Lighthouse just off the coast of the Westman Islands, about 4.5 miles from mainland Iceland. Commonly regarded as the most remote lighthouse in the world, visitors and maintenance crews typically arrive to the whitewashed lighthouse by helicopter. Perched seemingly precariously atop 120-foot rocky cliffs, the structure was built just before World War II when helicopters were also used to deliver supplies to build the structure that came into being in 1938. Workers had to lay out the groundwork by hand, scaling cliffs to access the worksite with slippery rocks, strong winds, and the frigidly cold North Atlantic full of menacing waves and killer whales below.

Beachy Head, East Sussex Light, ENG-005

Located in the English Channel below the breathtaking white cliffs of Beachy Head in East Sussex, Beachy Head Lighthouse became operational in October of 1902 and was the last traditional-style rock tower built by Trinity House. Manned by three lighthouse keepers for more than 80 years, it was equipped with a first-order revolving catadioptric optic made up of three double panels that gave out two white flashes every 20 seconds. A signal sounded every five minutes in foggy weather with novel methods used to produce it. The keepers would attach a small explosive charge along with a detonator to each arm of a jib on the gallery of the lighthouse that when winched into place would connect to a dynamo-electric firing machine within the lantern to fire a charge remotely. Today, the lighthouse can be visited on foot when the tide is right or by boat and is frequently used as a backdrop in movies. View this short clip to see how the lighthouse is painted during some investor-funded restoration of the site.

Burnham-On-Sea Low, Somerset Light, ENG-019

Commonly referred to as the “Lighthouse on Legs,” the Low Lighthouse is one of three historic lighthouses in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, England—and the only one that is still active. The unique lighthouse sits atop nine wooden legs and is a Grade II Heritage-listed structure. It made the World’s Top 10 Most Beautiful Lighthouses list in 2014. It was built in 1932 and has been operating on and off in conjunction with the onshore High Lighthouse for 137 years. It was deactivated in 1969 after improvements were made to the High Lighthouse, but in 1993 roles were reversed and the Low Lighthouse came back into commission and the High Lighthouse now sits decommissioned.

Head to the ILLW website to register for the 2023 event, read guidelines for participation, and to view the list of lighthouses to work in 2023. The ever-growing Official ARLHS World List is always open to new additions, so if you have coordinates for a new light, reach out to the Lighthouse List Manager at the ARLHS to have it added.

And for those who like to plan ahead, it’s also a good time to mark your calendar for the 2024 ILLW that will be held August 17-18.

Have you participated in International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend? Save us a trip up one of those precarious spiral staircases or a dose of Dramamine, and send in your photos of the beautiful, desolate, or daring locations you’ve worked at a previous year’s event. 73!

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