Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Flannan Isles

Islands are the DXers crack cocaine. There is mystery and romance that islands inspire, and not just the tropical palm trees and sweet drinks with umbrellas in them kind either. DXers find the romance of glacier covered rocks in the Antarctic to be just as compelling as humid atolls with no hint of shade and homicidal infestations of birds and crabs. The RSGB’s Islands On The Air (IOTA) program is solely devoted to this fascination with islands, big or small, rare or common. For the DXer that finds the DXCC list too trivial a challenge, the IOTA program is sure to provide some interest. A recently announced IOTA DXpedition to the Flannan Isles of Scotland, EU-118, is a good example of the extremes and challenges that is island DXing.

First a little background. Wikipedia provides a wealth of information on the Flannan Isles, namely where are they and why are they interesting. To quote,

The Flannan Isles are a small island group in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, approximately 32 kilometres (20 mi) west of the Isle of Lewis. They may take their name from St Flannan, the 7th century Irish preacher and abbot. The islands have been devoid of permanent residents since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971. They are the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace.

Ahh, a mystery. This is no run of the mill lump of moss covered granite sticking up out of the North Atlantic. It turns out that the island’s lighthouse was finished in 1899. It was manned by a three man crew with a fourth rotating crew member to provide relief. You can imagine in the days before ham radio and the internet, spending an extended period of time on a small rock with two other blokes is likely to get boring rather quickly. Less than a year after commissioning the lighthouse, in December 1900, the relief boat shows up one day to find nobody is home. The light is out, everything is normal in the lighthouse keepers quarters, except for an overturned kitchen chair, but no evidence of the three lighthouse keepers. Theories abounded as to the fate of the three missing lighthouse keepers. The official story concocted by an investigator with the National Lighthouse Board was as follows,

“From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday the 15 December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 ft (34 m) above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.”

Of course that sort of explanation just doesn’t make for much of a mystery. This is just the sort of story that is fodder for tales of paranormal activity or alien abductions. These are much more palatable than a mere story of getting washed out to sea by rough weather, so we’ll stick with those.

Alas, like most of the world’s lighthouses, the Flannan Isle lighthouse has been automated to prevent future alien abductions. Again, we’ll steal a quote from Wikipedia.

On 28 September 1971, it was automated. A reinforced concrete helipad was constructed at the same time to enable maintenance visits in heavy weather. The light is produced by burning acetylene gas and has a range of 20 miles (32 kilometres). It is now monitored from the Butt of Lewis and the shore station has been converted into flats. Other than its relative isolation it would be a relatively unremarkable light, were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned.

We’re not sure who Lewis is, but we don’t envy him his job.

This June, the MS0INT team plan to activate the Flannan Isles, providing a rare IOTA island group to hungry DXers worldwide. The LIDS look forward to working them and wish them success. Just watch out for the aliens. And Lewis.

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