Sri Lanka: Basses Light House Relief Operations

We were selected by late Lieutenant Shanthi Kumar Bahar, the Officer in Charge of Light house relief vessel, “Pradeepa”. And Officer in Charge of Naval Diving Unit for the lighthouse relief operation. We were only six months in the Navy.

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

There is a saying in the Sri Lanka Navy, if you want to be a real seaman; you should do Basses light house relief operations.

Basses light house relief operation is so tough. It tests your navigation skills, seamanship knowledge, boat handling and team work to the hilt in very rough sea conditions. The slightest mistake, your ship or boat will be smashed on to the reef.

Two of my batch mates and myself became “real seamen” by doing Basses light house relief operation almost 40 years ago, as Cadets in the month of April 1981. So, our “Baptism by fire” was at Basses light house relief operation. The “three musketeers” as in famous novel of Alexander Dumas, were Dushyantha Amaranayake (who was a logistic Officer, rose to highest position in Naval Logistic branch, Director General Naval Logistics and to rank of Rear Admiral. Now retired living in Kandy - if you want to meet him during day time, do not go to home but to Victoria Golf course Digana or Nuwaraeliya Golf Club), Rohana Perera (rose to Rear Admiral rank, commanded three Naval Areas, on retirement held appointed as Chairman, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) for number of years with much dedication and now living in Ragama) and myself. We were “all for one - one for all “.

The “Light House”, Horton Place, Colombo 7
We were selected by late Lieutenant Shanthi Kumar Bahar, the Officer in Charge of Light house relief vessel, “Pradeepa”. And Officer in Charge of Naval Diving Unit for the lighthouse relief operation. We were only six months in the Navy.

Those days Pradeepa operated from Trincomalee and her task was every third month, change light house keepers, provide victuals, fuel and fresh water for Great Basses and Little Basses light houses, which are 6 to 7 nautical miles away from land off Kirinda/ Yala/ Kumana area. The light house keepers, three in each will live in light house for three months in isolation. Very difficult job, but I came to know that they were being highly paid. When British left our shores after our Independence 1948 and our Defence Pact with UK was concluded in 1957 (from 8th January 1782 to 1st October 1957, the Naval base Trincomalee was under British) Imperial Light house service handed over these light houses ( there were fourteen active light houses around our Island) and the relief vessel to Royal Ceylon Navy, including beautiful mansion in Colombo 7, where Head of Imperial Light House Service ( Ceylon) lived, which is also known as “Light House”, the present day Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies.

Great Basses Reef Lighthouse & Little Basses Reef Lighthouse
Light house relief operation is a very tough task, specially in monsoon seasons (North East and South West). The two relief operations in Inter monsoon seasons, (April /May and December/ January) were very enjoyable with calm seas and cristal clear waters. We were lucky, we did 1981 April relief operation, when Pradeepa anchored close to light house with two shackles of anchor cable (shackle is 15 fathoms), you see your anchor and cable laid down on sea bottom when looked from ship’s bow. Water was so clear. We young cadets used to jumped into sea and swim to the Great Basses light house when Lt Bahar and other Navy divers do spear fishing.

Evening B-B-Qs were full of fresh sea food at our camp site in Kirinda (when doing the relief operation at Great Basses light house) and in Udda Pottana ( at Yala block 2) when doing relief work for Little Basses lighthouse). After eating enough and more sea food at night, we three cadets slept on beach in open air, next to our camp fire. I used to do my favorite hobby, counting stars.

We were three lucky cadets working hard on seamanship and navigation during day time and enjoying night with good food when our other batch mates in Trincomalee polishing shoes, chipping and painting deck of old gunboat SLNS Ranakamee and running around dockyard.

William Douglass

Necessity of light houses in Basses reef was felt by. British from 1856 for ships to avoid dangerous Basses reef known as Rawana Kotte in Sinhala, mythical sunken city of King Rawana. To be on safer side, ships kept well away from this reef, there by spending more time on passage and more coal for steam ships. It was argued by mariners that if light houses were constructed to show the ends of the dangerous reef, large amount spent for extra coal and time could be saved. Iron tower on a granite base were suggested but was not successful.

Sir James Nicolas Douglass, renowned Engineer and Light House designer with Alexander Gordon submitted a design in 1867 to Trinity House (official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, Channel Islands and Gibraltar) involved in the process. Those were the days building lighthouses was a family business. Sir James’s brother, William Douglass was the executive engineer of the Basses lighthouse construction project, who traveled to Sri Lanka. The stones required for construction of the lighthouse was cut in to required sizes, numbered and shipped in two steam ships with lifting gear. Each stone was 2-3 tons and 120 tons were shipped from UK. 37, 256 cubic feet of granite used for the Great Basses light house with weight of 2768 tons. Tower was 121 feet in hight.

Great Basses relief operation in 1981. Rajeem at the helm of Wooden Whaler
Just imagine bringing these granite blocks all the way from UK, in specially designed two twin-screw steamers fitted with lifting gear.

First stone laid on 28th December 1870 for Great Basses lighthouse and work completed with light fitted in March 1873. There are six circular rooms in Great Basses lighthouse, with 13 feet diameter. The little Basses light house of same size of Great Basses light house was completed in 1878. Both the light houses were identical, where Great Basses is a pure white colored tower and Little Basses is a pure white tower with black

color band in the Centre. Two light houses flashes two different light signals at night as per Admiralty List of Lights. Characteristics of the lights indicated in navigational charts also.

Dried Villu in Yala Block two
Little Basses light house is closer to Corona shipwreck (do not be alarmed by word Corona!).Corona was a 40-gun frigate owned by Italian Navy, built in Venice in 1807. Royal Navy captured her and named HMS Daedalus and she sank hitting little Basses reef when escorting a convoy in 1813.

A wooden whaler (wooden boat handle by oars) being towed by Pradeepa and tow was released closer to Light house. Whaler was pulled by civilian crew. They were led by their coxswain, Taalif Mohammad Rajeem. He was coming from a family British brought from Jawa (Indonesia) specially for this job, now settled down in Kirinda. Rajeem was so good; he kept the whaler with oars closer to Lighthouse, not hitting the reef and transferred goods and men by using manually operated crane in the lighthouse. Rajeem did this with whaler, controlled by oars, where even present day power boats could not do. Rajeem was a very good cook also. His “fish soup” taste delicious which he prepared at Udda Ptthana camp site. It was the best fish soup I have tasted in my life. Chief coxswain Rajeem died at prime age 84, about five years back.

When we visited these two light houses, we found that they were very well kept by the lighthouse keepers. They were like 5-star hotels. Beautifully kept and brass parts shining brightly. Now the lighthouses are controlled by Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

It is very unfortunate that these two light houses were abandoned after Tsunami Waves on 26th December 2004. With the very frightening experience of Tsunami waves hitting the lighthouses up to 3rd floor, lighthouse keepers were rescued by Sri Lanka Air Force helicopters. The lighthouse keepers refused to work there again. Now the lights are automated and mainly depend on Solar panels fitted.

I have visited them with present lighthouse keeper Mr Nizar, who is based in Kirinda, when I was Director General Sri Lanka Coast Guard in 2014. You feel sorry of these giant granite structures, strong enough to withstand ferocious Tsunami waves (only minor damages happened to them) were abounded now.

I will conclude with one incident happened in Udda Pottana during our light house relief operation in 1981.

We were walking on dried Villu in the Yala block two with Lieutenant Bahar in lead. We came across a huge crocodile in the middle of the Villu. It’s looked like dead, but very fresh in look. Lt Bahar asked, “Cadet Wijegunaratne do you know how to find out a crocodile is dead or not? “. I smelled something fishy and said “No Sir”.

He explained, crocodile has its last strength in its tail- end. So, you have to bite the tail end and if it moves, it’s alive. So if this crocodile is alive, we will carry the crocodile to a water hole and released it. I said “Aye Aye Sir! “.

Lt Bahar shouted at me again, “So what you are waiting for? “. What do you think? I bit the tail of this huge crocodile! No movements luckily and it’s dead!

If any Navy Officer asked present day Cadet to do such a thing, cadet’s parents will go to Human Right Commission and log a complain against the officer!

Those days we were told “comply and complain”. Yes! We complied. But to complain? To whom?

Those were the days!!!

(The writer, retired from Sri Lanka Navy and Former Chief of Defence Staff )

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