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Spratly Islands lighthouse job no sinecure

Update: June, 11/2013 - 10:03
Nguyen Van Thu has been guarding lighthouses in Spratly Islands' nine lighthouses for more than half his life. – VNS FIle Photo

by Le Quang Minh

TRUONG SA (VNS) — For more than half his life, Nguyen Van Thu has been manning lighthouses. In his late 50s, with a loose ponytail and bohemian style, the guard could easily be mistaken for an artist.

For two decades, he's watched over the lighthouse on Sinh Ton Island, a land mass of about eight hectares belonging to the Spratly Islands.

As one of the first people to work at Spratly Islands' nine lighthouses, Thu said the job was not as easy as it sounds.

"When there's a system breakdown, we only have minutes to fix it. If there are interruptions in maritime signals, vessels could lose direction, hitting hidden rocks or coral reefs," Thu said.

The job involves a lot of waiting.

Everyday at exactly 5:30pm, the nine lighthouses in the Spratly Islands are turned on. Their glow lasts until 6:30am the following morning.

The lighthouses here are managed under the Southern Viet Nam Maritime Safety Corporation. Unlike other soldiers stationed in the islands, the lighthouse staff must pay for their own food and personal items. They can place their orders within the company, which sends a ship to the island once every few months.

In 2006, when Thu was the head of the An Bang Island lighthouse, he and other staff members tried catching fish to improve their meals. Unfortunately, their vessel broke down at sea.

"We decided to swim to shore, which was five kilometers away. I told others that if I couldn't make it, they should switch direction to save time and didn't need to rescue me," he recalled.

But they made it.

When the weather turns bad, the job gets more difficult. During the season when the sea is rough, staff members always have canoes and life buoys ready.

Ngo Van Thanh, head of the lighthouse at Da Tay Island, said when the wind was so harsh that the waves neared the top of the lighthouse, they had to relocate further into the island.

However, they don't even think of leaving their posts.

"A lighthouse guard leaving his post is like a soldier leaving his fighting post," Thanh said. "We are not just helping the fishermen; we help mark the sovereignty of the nation. Even during stormy nights, we keep the light shining."

As a native of the northern port city of Hai Phong, Thanh has more than 20 years of experience guarding lighthouses in the Spratly Islands. When he was young, Thanh guarded the stations on Long Chau and Hon Dau islands before moving to An Bang, Song Tu Tay and Da Lat islands. He's now stationed at Da Tay Island.

Inside the lighthouse, about four to five people live in an area of about 15-20 square meters.

Other rooms are used for storing equipment. Even at the biggest lighthouse in the islands, Truong Sa Lon, there is little space. Vu Sy Luu, a guard there, said he wanted to raise a dog or some chickens – but the living space was just too limited.

Every year, each staff member gets about three months off. And during the Lunar New Year, some get to go home. However, the trip is fraught with peril. Thu missed his son's wedding because a storm struck while the ship was going ashore.

Colonel Nguyen Ba Ngoc, deputy head of the Viet Nam People's Navy Region 4, which manages the Spratly Islands maritime force, said the nine lighthouses are located throughout the 21 islands of Truong Sa District, central Khanh Hoa Province. "They help the fishermen feel reassured and continue to get their livelihood from the sea," he said.

Some of the men here are already in their late 50s. They miss their family members back on shore, whom they talk to occasionally through maritime communication technology.

"We just have to wait until retirement to repay our family members for the days we're gone," Thanh said.

Sometimes fishermen pass by the islands to say hello or bring gifts.

During the night, besides the eye of the lighthouse, the eyes of the staff look back at the deep sea."For us, no matter where you guard, it's always close to the sea," Thanh said. "We feel happy and relieved seeing just a flash of light reflecting back from out there."

When asked why he'd chosen such a difficult and remote job, he only laughed.

"If we didn't do it, who would?" — VNS

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