Published August 26, 2016
As you drive around Iceland, the chances are good that you’ll see a lighthouse or two. Unsurprising, considering there are 104 lighthouses all along the nearly 5,000 kilometres of coastline. For most of us, these structures seem almost like vestiges of a bygone era, making fine subjects for photography or maybe a quick look-around. For others, like mason Ingvar Hreinsson, they are a passion.
Ingvar recently achieved the distinction of having “completed” repairs to every lighthouse in the country, a feat that took him 21 years. “Completed” is a relative term, because as became very clear in talking with Ingvar, the work is never really done.
Ingvar is soft-spoken, and not one to brag about the work he does. He even downplayed the impetus for taking this job in the first place.
“There was a financial crisis going on, and I was looking for work,” he told us. “I saw this job being advertised, and applied for it. I was lucky to be chosen from out of many applicants. It was a job that suited me, because I’m used to working without a vacation—evenings, weekends, even Christmas and Easter.”
The nerve centre
Ingvar’s office, located on the north shore of Kópavogur, is enormous. There are several separate workshops within the building, used for the repair and upkeep of lighthouse-related equipment past and present: lamps of gas and electricity, giant glass lenses, radio gear and the like. Even the colossal steel buoys that the British military brought to Iceland in the 1940s can be found here, sitting in dry dock in various states of disrepair, made obsolete long ago by the plastic buoys Iceland now uses to measure the size of waves.
The most stunning structure within the building, however, is a scale model of Landeyjahöfn. Taking up an area about half the size of an airplane hangar, this expanse of rocks and water can in fact recreate any harbour in the country and its wave activity. Overhead, a giant map of Iceland replete with flashing lights along the coastline indicates not just where each lighthouse is located, but also its signature blink—captains at sea who are completely lost can actually use these signature blinks to identify where they are.
We also found what must be the Holy Grail of lighthouse work on these premises: a cabinet holding the keys to every single lighthouse in Iceland. Not that all of them had keys; some were listed simply as “open,” and are never locked at all.
“Some of these lighthouses are used as emergency shelters, such as when there’s a shipwreck or an accident at sea,” Ingvar told us.
The work never ends
Ingvar doesn’t do the work alone, however. He leads a team of some 80 paid volunteers, mostly university students, who take part in duties that include “a lot of cleaning, replacing broken windows, crafting handrails and doors, but mostly a great deal of painting.”
With such a team behind him, why then does it take a generation’s time to repair just over 100 lighthouses?
“They’re not standing inside the harbour,” Ingvar explained. “They’re placed way out on the edge of the sea, where they’re subjected to the worst kinds of conditions: wind, water, salt and sand all take their toll. So it’s constant work repairing them, again and again.”
In fact, Ingvar did not exactly make his repairs in an orderly, sequential fashion. He was required to backtrack, visiting some lighthouses several times along the way.
Interestingly, these lighthouses use sustainable energy. They are powered by solar cells, and wind power, with a battery capable of holding enough electricity to keep the lighthouse going. “You don’t really need direct sunlight for solar panels,” he told us. “Just some kind of light. Even in the winter, the cells are converting the sunlight into power for the lighthouse. It’s totally possible to use solar cells in Iceland.”
As one might expect, this is not a job where one encounters any big surprises, but the lighthouses were nonetheless a source of wonder for Ingvar.
“I guess what surprised me most is how many beautiful structures there are, especially when one considers how difficult the conditions were for building them at the time,” he said, and while he cares for them all, there is one lighthouse that he holds dearest: Dýrholaey.
“I’ve just worked so much on it, and find it so beautiful, that it’s a favourite of mine,” Ingvar told us, which anyone who visits his office can guess. Large, detailed blueprints of the lighthouse adorn the wall, and he has spent a great deal of time building an apartment inside the lighthouse itself.
“A lighthouse is more than just a lighthouse”
In fact, you actually can stay the night in some of these lighthouses, but it’ll cost you. Accommodation at some places can go up to 250,000 ISK per night. That may, however, change in the near future.
“It’s a policy now to try and get some money out of these lighthouses,” Ingvar told us. “We’ve started renting them out, one by one. And people are always asking about lighthouses for rent. We’re very open to the idea, if someone wants to rent a lighthouse. There have been weddings at lighthouses. Some men have come to use asking for keys to a lighthouse so they could propose marriage to their girlfriends in a lighthouse.”
For now, lighthouses are funded by a “lighthouse fee,” money which is deducted from the harbour fees that docking ships have to pay. This makes cruise ships that visit Iceland very lucrative for lighthouses.
In the meantime, there are a number of lighthouses that serve more purposes than just guiding ships into a harbour or letting them know where it is dangerous to sail. The Akranesviti lighthouse and the Knarrarós lighthouse in South Iceland, for example, regularly feature exhibitions, concerts (the acoustics are reportedly astounding) and have tours most or all of the year.
On the practical front, lighthouses are also maritime nerve centres of a sort. In addition to the beacon they provide, these structures also house radar, GSM devices, relays for radio stations and more.
Ingvar, true to his nature as a man of few words, has only one simple message to convey: “A lighthouse is more than just a lighthouse.” He gets endless enjoyment out of seeing city slickers like myself finding anything interesting about lighthouses at all, and warmly welcomed us back any time. With a mason as passionate about the work as Ingvar is, Iceland’s lighthouses will likely continue to be a source of fascination and crucial maritime assistance for years to come.