On a windswept island 12 kilometres from the West Australian coastline stands a lighthouse that has beamed its signal across the ocean for more than a century.
An important beacon of maritime history, the Breaksea Island lighthouse is one of more than 500 aids to navigation dotted around Australia’s vast coastline.
Maintaining and preserving these beacons, which are often found in isolated locations, is an ongoing project for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
Daniel Atkins, an AMSA senior adviser and engineer, said technicians visit each lighthouse either annually or every second year.
“The aim is to undertake maintenance to critical components that ensure the operation of the aid to navigation,” he said.
The restoration works at Breaksea Island have only just commenced, with scaffolding rigged around the entire structure and work taking place on the internal staircase.
Entire siteworks are expected to be completed in 21 weeks and the crew will be rotated to reflect the different skill sets required.
“At this site, we have painting as well as steel repairs and concrete repairs,” Mr Atkins said.
Specialist maintenance teams are hard at work removing 100-year-old glass from the top of the Breaksea lighthouse tower.
These crews will live on the remote island near the south coast town of Albany, sleeping in historic huts close to the construction site.
There is only low-lying scrub vegetation across Breaksea Island and it is bordered by steep rock edges, making it almost impossible to access by boat.
“It’s definitely a challenging project,” Mr Atkins said.
“One of the key challenges is just getting equipment and materials to site, with the majority of materials delivered here by helicopter.
“Many of our lighthouses are located on islands, some on reefs, and you’ve got buoys as well … all are located in a harsh marine environment.”
The main Breaksea Island light has been switched off due to the maintenance works but a temporary light has been rigged at the top of the scaffold.
Beloved by sailors
Experienced yachtsman Mark McRae lives in Albany and has sailed past Breaksea Island countless times.
“After sailing on the oceans in ferocious storms and getting closer to home, it’s such a wonderful sight to see a lighthouse beaming its light out across the ocean,” he said.
“It is a ‘welcome home’ sign, it’s certainly something we all cherish and it brings tears to our eyes, particularly after a long, hard voyage to at last see that lighthouse … you’re home and you’re safe.”
The veteran sailor said there was still a great need for lighthouses, despite advanced technology.
“There is no question that lighthouses will always remain a very, very important part of navigation,” he said.
“We have all these modern electronic aids but if they go down, we still have our charts of the world, and on the chart it will tell you what lighthouse it is by its flashing sequence.
“A lighthouse can be relied on in all weather and all conditions … and it’s not just about Australian seafarers, it’s about people all over the world arriving in Australia to see … a lighthouse in the distance and realising they have arrived.”
Many of Australia’s historic lighthouses have played important roles in maritime history.
Breaksea Island was one of the last symbols of home for the 30,000 troops who sailed from Albany’s shore to fight in World War I and they relayed messages through the lighthouse keeper’s daughter using Morse code.
“I think everyone is kind of drawn to lighthouses, they hold a special place for many people,” Mr Atkins said.
“I feel rather privileged to be involved in projects such as this on such significant structures, keeping the lighthouse operational as well as maintaining the heritage.”
Mr McRae has sailed many corners of the world, including Cape Horn, but the lighthouse at his home port is a very special one.
“Breaksea Island has been beaming a light of welcome and a light of farewell to so many mariners over so many years,” he said.
“Lighthouses have that romance and I think a lot of landlubbers realise the significance of what they are all about.
“These lighthouses have guided families and ships from all over the world safely. I think its absolutely crucial that we retain lighthouses.”