Why were lighthouses necessary?
In the 1800’s ships bound for the colony of Victoria from Europe took about six months to complete the journey. What a calamity then that more than one hundred ships were shipwrecked on the Victorian coast and many more on Bass Strait islands days before their arrival in Melbourne. The reasons for the shipwrecks are the sometimes ferocious seas and currents in Bass Strait and the navigational tools of the day.
Ships would travel around South Africa on the Great Circle Route and head into the Roaring Forty (latitude 40) winds near Antarctica which would sweep them east towards Australia. Without sighting land for so long they were unable to take bearings to determine longitude which would have enabled them to know where along the Australian coast they were.
Captains would then aim to ‘thread the needle’ between Cape Otway and King Island(some 80 kilometer distance) before sailing towards the Port Phillip Heads. But westerly currents and the prevailing south westerly winds might drag them towards shore.
Sailing a ship against a lee wind was difficult. So the coast from Portland to Mallacoota is littered with shipwrecks and King Island has also claimed more than 50 shipwrecks.Lighthouses enabled captains to determine their location along the coast and at night allowed them to navigate well away from the coasts. Some 35 lighthouses and light-stations along the Victorian coast and many more on Bass Strait islands and on the Tasmanian coast now protect shipping.
Who manages the lighthouse today?
• The lighthouse is managed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Their responsibility is to provide reliable navigational aid to mariners. The management and upkeep of these assets is funded by levies and taxes placed on the ships that enter our waters. Due to this funding coming from the shipping industry (not tax payers) AMSA cannot justify managing a lighthouse for tourism so they have given over the lease of the lighthouse to state governments. Therefore, local government (the Surf Coast Shire) manages the lighthouse precinct and all tourism concerns. AMSA still have control over the structure and therefore have strict codes of conduct for any person(s) entering the lighthouse.
• Recently, AMSA have outsourced the maintenance of the lighthouse to a private contractor. Maintenance works occur on a yearly basis.
• Eco-Logic Environment and Education Services holds a tender with the Surf Coast Shire to conduct public tours at the Split Point Lighthouse until August 2011.