Stephens Is Lighthouse

Stephens Island, Sept 1958

Stephens Island, Sept 1958. Whites Aviation Ltd. Alexander Turnbull Library. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30628810

The Stephens Island Lighthouse was built at the highest elevation above sea level of all New Zealand’s lighthouses. The original light was also the most powerful. In 1938 the light was converted from oil to electric power supplied by diesel generators. In 2000 the original light was removed and replaced with a new rotating beacon, located within the original tower. The light is now remotely controlled from Wellington.

Callsign: ZMS
Location: latitude 40°40′ south, longitude 174°00′ east
Elevation: 183 metres above sea level
Construction: cast iron tower
Tower height: 15 metres
Light configuration: modern rotating beacon
Light flash character: white light flashing once every 5 seconds
Power source: batteries charged by solar panels
Range: 18 nautical miles (33 kilometres)
Date light first lit: 1894
Automated: 1989
Demanned: 1990

Stephens Island lighthouse in 1965

Stephens Island lighthouse in 1965. Randle, Graham: Photographs of New Zealand lighthouses. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Access to Stephens was by boat from Picton, a 5-hour trip in the Marine Department vessel Enterprise. Landing was done via the block crane in a similar manner to that at Brothers Island. There was, however, an added issue that the keepers were typically married and therefore a safety innovation, a tea chest, was introduced. The wives and/or children would sit in the tea chest which was in turn put into the cargo net. This was deemed to be safer!

It may well have been – if the transfer was uneventful, but I would prefer to take my chances in the sea without having to extricate myself from a floating tea chest. Local practice was to make use of the tea chest optional!

After landing, a lengthy walk was needed to circle around to reach the relatively high parts of the Island where the light, radio equipment and the three light keepers’ houses were situated. A trip was typically for 2-3 days to allow for any unforeseen work required on the radio equipment, and to suit boat availability. This often allowed a night excursion to locate the roaming tuatara which lived on the island sanctuary.

The radio installation was a marine MF/HF set (callsign ZMS) for communicating with ZLW, and a maritime beacon. The beacon was on its unique frequency, the earlier shared frequency and timed transmission having been dispensed with. The beacon was made by, I recall, IMC and was relatively unreliable until all the selenium rectifiers were replaced with silicon diodes.

– Ian Hutchings, 2016

The landing site at Stephens Island, showing the railway to the top, as seen from a lighthouse tender in the 1950s or 60

The landing site at Stephens Island, showing the railway to the top, as seen from a lighthouse tender in the 1950s or 60s. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Unloading at Stephens Island

Lightouse tender ‘Enterprise’ calling at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

The skipper of the lighthouse tender had a challenging job keeping his vessel in position

The skipper of the lighthouse tender had a challenging job keeping his vessel safe and in position for transferring cargo. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Wash from the propeller of Enterprise as cargo is transferred at Stephens Island Lighthouse

Wash from the propeller of Enterprise as cargo is transferred at Stephens Island Lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Two crates, one of them labelled "Made in England" being unloaded at Stephens Island

Three crates, one of them labelled “Made in England” being unloaded at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Conditions can change rapidly at these sites with a change of wind or tide. Look how far up the rocks the waves are and consider the skill of the skipper in placing the launch at the right spot at the right time in a swell like that. No wonder the guys in the last shot look as though they’re wondering if they’re going to get their feet wet or have an early bath night!
– Chris Underwood

Transferring cargo at Stephens Island. Courtesy

Transferring cargo at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Humans arrived and departed Stephens Island the same way as the cargo - on the end of a rope!

Humans arrived and departed Stephens Island the same way as the cargo – on the end of a rope! A note accompanying these photos has the names of radio technicians Bob Bundle and Ray Sutherland. Ian Hutchings has confirmed that Ray, who was in charge of NZPO radio maintenance, is the man on the right in this photo. If you are able to confirm the name of the other person, please contact us. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Stephens Island station was a lonely and difficult post. Right up until its automation in 1989, the only communication with the mainland was by means of a radio telephone. This was only supposed to be used for lighthouse duties.
Access to Stephens Island was extremely difficult. Keepers first had to journey from Wellington over the turbulent seas of Cook Strait. Then upon reaching Stephens Island, the way ashore was via a basket swung on the end of the station’s crane. Passengers and goods were winched from the deck of the servicing ship onto the shore. Keepers and their families then had a long walk up the 180 metre-high hill to their homes.
Maritime New Zealand

Stephens Island lighthouse in its current configuration

Stephens Island lighthouse in its current configuration. Photo: Maritime New Zealand

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