• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses

The only access was by sea when Dwayne Robinson repainted Nelson’s historic lighthouse – one of several lighthouse restoration projects he’s worked on.

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

You’d expect the frequencies emitting from a lighthouse to be of the visible form, a beam to warn sailors of danger. But on Anzac Day in 2016, it was the haunting notes of the “Last Post” that sounded across Farewell Spit.

The recording was played at volume on the northernmost tip of the South Island from a speaker placed at the top of the 27m lighthouse by Chris Beckett, while he was living on site at Farewell Spit during a restoration project. It was one of the highlights of his four-month stay, almost making up for night-time invasions by sandflies and mosquitoes.

Beckett’s job was to help restore then repaint the latticed steel beacon, as part of a team contracted by Nelson company Nicholson Protective Coatings. More than 150,000 litres of fresh water and 25 tonnes of salt-free sand were carted 27km up the beach from the end of the road at Golden Bay, and then used to clean and strip the framework back to bare steel. Because the lighthouse is on a historic site and nature reserve, no contaminants could be left behind, with every flake of paint and grain of introduced sand captured within a shroud of double-layered scrim cloth. 

Beckett, who’s done a few lighthouse restorations, bunked down with up to five others in one of the original keepers’ homes. “We had the most incredible sunsets,” he says. “The weather was extreme and we saw some impressive electrical storms, abandoning ship off the scaffolding a few times.”

Twice-daily visits from inquisitive tour bus passengers were a welcome connection with the outside world, with many sharing stories about themselves or relatives who’d lived at the lighthouse or worked on it. “We had some fun,” Beckett says. “When it was last painted, in 1995, it was given red legs in support of the America’s Cup red socks fundraising campaign, so we thought it would be fitting to keep them the same. We also added our names to the hidden roof space at the top, where all the other maintenance staff had signed – dating back to 1914 – before sealing it off for another 10-20 years.”

Most recently, the company repainted Nelson’s iconic lighthouse on Boulder Bank. Built in 1862, it’s the second-oldest lighthouse in the country. It was decommissioned in 1982, but has been adopted by Port Nelson and is now shining a new light, thanks to the port and a local glass company.

Repainting of the steel and cast concrete took four weeks, working with brush and roller to reduce the risk of environmental contamination from paint splatter. The only access was by boat, but the isolation adds to the excitement, reckons painter Dwayne Robinson, who’s also worked on Maritime New Zealand lighthouse restorations at Cape Campbell, south of Blenheim, Tuhawaiki (Jacks) Point near Timaru, and Waipapa Point in the Catlins. 

“This type of work is magic,” he says. “I’ve shared my ‘office’ with seals, and looking back at the final finish once the job’s completed is phenomenal.”                                   

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.