The Marstein Island breaks the waves of the Atlantic Ocean at one of the westernmost points off the rocky, Norwegian coastline. The Marstein Lighthouse stands facing the North Sea at 93 feet above sea level, sending its signal out to guard vessels in the busy passage towards the city of Bergen. The turbulent winds from the northwest make it the most weather-exposed lighthouse along the shores of western Norway, located a few miles west of the town Austevoll. The community has now formed plans for a renovation of the site into a recreational and cultural outpost, as a symbol of the maritime history of the area.
On the day of our visit, the wind is 25 knots, rising to 30 knots. A small helicopter brings us to the island since the sea is too heavy to land there by boat, like it is most of the time out here at the entrance to the North Sea. The sea breaks around its rocky edges more often than not, and white, creamy waves encircle the island and beat up against the cliffs surrounding the lighthouse. On a calm day, the dangerous shallows half a mile west of Marstein are invisible. Otherwise, the sea rises high above the feared reef where two ships have run aground in recent times. One of the vessels sank within one minute after it was pulled off the rock. A third incident occurred by the island’s rocky fringes after an engine failure. The lighthouse’s last keeper, Egil Olsen, tells us about the Marstein Island and this year’s great storm that raged in the area and damaged the keeper’s house severely.
The lighthouse was first lit in 1877. The tower itself is 57 feet tall, a modest building made of concrete. Its third order Fresnel lens that reached 17.5 nautical miles, lies dismantled, the lighthouse now being fully automated. A nautophone for giving fog warnings was installed in 1915 and by 1923, a radio signal provided the same function. Its vital geographical position made the island a target for the German occupational forces whose submarine broke water in the early days of the Second World War and enemy soldiers took control of the lighthouse. The attendants were put ashore and a fort with eight cannons and 43 German soldiers was established. The allied air forces bombed the installation on July 25th and again on August 1 1940, causing considerable damage. A restoration in 1949-50 replaced the original octagon shaped lighthouse with a square tower, a new keeper’s dwelling was built, and a concrete bulkhead surrounding the buildings was put up. After the 1950 restoration, the lighthouse hosted no families any longer, but was turned into a shift station. Not until 1979 was the second light installed to provide a red sector around the dangerous rock. Now a new future awaits the Marstein Island as enthusiastic local forces set out to create a contemporary, historical rendezvous point of their most important landmark.
A steady mind
A former sailor, Egil Olsen, once an apprentice onboard the beautiful barque Statsraad Lehmkuhl, served at Marstein Lighthouse for five years. “It was a fantastic place to live,” he says. “I like to watch the sea and how the weather changes. It changes quickly out there.” He regrets the modernization of the lighthouse, which was manned until 2002. Whereas a revolving light earlier swept the night along the coast, it now displays only two flashes and two off, its reach being reduced to 10-12 nautical miles. “Passing vessels ought to be able to navigate by map, lights and marks, in addition to satellite navigation,” he says. He tells me that he enjoyed working there very much and that he has rented the place occasionally after he left his position as keeper. “There was peace and quiet, and we were never lonely, always being two on post,” says the steady keeper, who used to stay there one month in a stretch and then was two weeks on leave. “There was maintenance, watch and usually fishing to do.” He has had some duties in connection with naval training operations, such as radar control and weather reporting.
The attendants were flown by helicopter to the island, which is accessible by boat in the summer only. They only had a rowboat at hand. “We could occasionally go to the village to shop a little if the sea was calm.” On such days, some visitors might land on the island. Up to seven visitors a year could show up, Olsen recalls. One can imagine that visitors are especially welcome at a place like this. “We had radio
contact with other lighthouses along the coast and you can see the flash from Slattery Lighthouse further south.” The keeper remembers fondly the bird life and the vegetation in the beautiful summers. Fresh fish was pulled from the ocean almost every day at Marstein and constituted the main part of the diet. The keepers once caught a basking shark and with some difficulties managed to haul the creature up on the beach. Olsen’s well-used fishing gear is at present missing after the great storm this year, a storm that will not be soon forgotten.
In the aftermath of the storm
In January 2005, the cold fronts produced a storm that may have been the worst since the lighthouse was erected. A spring tide caused the waves to get a grasp on the islet, break loose the thick, concrete bulkhead protecting the buildings, and destroy the keeper’s house. Window frames were blown in and the fire stove was torn loose from the wall inside the house. The tower itself was not damaged in the storm. Fortunately, nobody was present at Marstein at the time, but maintenance had been done there the day before the storm. Olsen tells me that during storms, it is advisable to move away from the windows, ‘ports’ as they are called out here, or seek refuge in the tower. After many years at sea, he naturally maintains a nautical vocabulary. If the power went out he would listen to the sea and try to run to the tower between two waves, in the dark, to restart the generator. This time, the sea has seized the keeper’s house and the fresh sea breeze blows through the rooms.
The damage caused by the storm has naturally put the question of Marstein’s future on the agenda. Making the place accessible for the public is a tremendous change, considering the solitude that has marked the islet ever since the first man set foot there.
Olsen’s predecessor, Gisle Klepsvik, lighthouse keeper for 23 years, recorded the history, work and incidents at Marstein before he retired in 1999. As a dedicated lighthouse keeper, he telephoned the island every day when he was ashore. In a letter to a colleague at Lindesnes Lighthouse, he reflected on how families could survive at Marstein on a low salary and hardly any means of connecting with the mainland. In bad weather, the families could be totally isolated. They gathered driftwood and kept a few sheep and pigs. Once during a storm, a pig shed blew away and the attendants managed to get hold of the pig and brought it into the kitchen, where it was killed and prepared for a Christmas dinner. It strikes me that fishing must have provided most of the food for the inhabitants. The roast was probably an extra treat in the scarcity of the rugged life at Marstein.
A vision of Marstein’s future
The fishing community of Austevoll is now in the process of acquiring the island from the Norwegian coastal authorities and have developed plans for a conversion of the buildings into a recreational site. The coastal authorities will still maintain and use the lighthouse for coastal purposes. The Mayor Helge Andre Njåstad tells us that there is substantial local interest in the lighthouse. He has, for a long time, wished to give the place the attention it deserves. The Town Council, together with entrepreneur Magnus Stangeland, who takes great interest in the lighthouse, has established a foundation responsible for cooperating with sponsors and running the Marstein Island. As the Mayor envisions it, Marstein Lighthouse will be a welcoming beacon in the fairway to the beautiful, scattered islands of Austevoll.
The plans for Marstein include hosting art exhibitions, concerts, and conferences. It will offer a retreat into the remoteness of the sea and a unique experience of Nordic nature and the coastal culture of the area. A new landing is needed to facilitate travel to the island. The seafood of the area will be on the menu, whether self-caught or provided from Austevoll, a place renowned for its seafood production. The board wishes to equip the island with its own little flock of wild sheep, an ancient breed that is adapted to the climate and can be seen year round in Austevoll. The renovation is planned to start in 2006.
The white splashes of saltwater around the Marstein give the impression of being far out to sea where the forces of nature tear and wring the environment between earth and sky. The destroyed house where keepers have worked and lived for many years is a reminder of the forces at work in the ocean. Still, the cold fronts move farther north in the spring and summer seasons, and the island sees more tranquil waters during the fairer part of the year. Many different birds can be seen and the vegetation displays a remarkable variety of sturdy plants that find fruitful soil at the last stop before the vast ocean. Hopefully, many members of the Austevoll community may soon be able to gather at their Marstein Island to share the maritime heritage that the lighthouse represents.
This story appeared in the
June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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