Last one out, leave the light on: The Needles lighthouse is to lose its keepers as manning is phased out around Britain. Helen Nowicka reports

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GERRY Douglas-Sherwood's job comes with a spectacular view of the English Channel - but not for much longer.

The Needles lighthouse off the Isle of Wight, his place of work and part-time home for 11 years, is being automated. Once the contractors move out, he will be surplus to requirements.

Along with 208 other lighthouse keepers around the shores of mainland Britain, his job is under threat from a combination of technology, which can do the work without their wages, and pressure from shipping firms on the lighthouse authorities to cut costs.

Lighthouses are almost entirely financed by light dues levied on ships entering or leaving port, according to their tonnage. Most of the dues come from companies which pay thousands of pounds each time for large vessels and are keen to keep the tolls as low as possible.

The two lighthouse authorities covering England, Wales and Scotland are using their modernisation programmes to phase out manned lighthouses. Antiquated lighting systems, often driven by diesel generators, are being replaced by electrical and solar-powered lights, which can be monitored by computers based at a separate control centre to be developed at Harwich.

Conversion costs can soon be recouped - the pounds 352,000 it will cost to automate the Needles will be recovered in five years once wages for a six-man crew do not have to be paid.

The number of manned lighthouses has steadily declined from 74 six years ago to the present figure of 32. By the end of 1997 there will be none. Keepers are being lost through natural wastage, while others, mostly younger men, are leaving after retraining programmes. Those still employed in four years' time will be made redundant.

Mr Douglas-Sherwood, 44, a principal lighthouse keeper, plans to be among the last to go. The Needles will not become fully mechanised until next year, after electricity cables are laid along the sea bed to connect it with the Isle of Wight. .

He hopes to be transferred to another manned station but is undecided about the long term. A mechanical engineer, he became a lighthouse keeper in 1970 after spotting a reference to the service in a careers handbook.

He enjoys the routine of working for one month and then spending a month with his wife and son in Norfolk. 'The job is fun and challenging, and there's great companionship - I have a good crew, I'm extremely lucky.

'It takes a bit of getting used to but you learn to keep yourself to yourself, be tidy and get on with the others. It's quite an art; there are only a few people who can do it. But as soon as I get home I switch off, I hardly think about it.'

The Needles is one of only three remaining manned rock lighthouses off the coast of England and Wales, and conditions are rudimentary in the extreme. Heating comes from a single solid-fuel stove, while the three-man crew on duty share a single bedroom during their month on board, sleeping in 'banana bunks' built around the 90ft-high tower's circular walls.

Below the bedroom is the kitchen, the main living area which doubles as washing area and office.

Above is a shower room, toilet and storage area, and at the top is the light - the beam can be seen for 15 miles.

The Needles operates a 24- hour watch, with keepers working to a three-day rota. Their main duty is to make sure equipment functions correctly and to switch the 35,000-candlepower light on and off. They supply regular weather reports for coastguards, alert them if a ship is in difficulty, activate the fog signal, and keep a log of conditions. Whoever takes the 4am shift has to ensure the living area is tidy.

Sleep is snatched at irregular intervals, and free time is occupied by listening to the radio, reading, hobbies, and watching television.

Mr Douglas-Sherwood is a vintage-motorcycle enthusiast and takes parts to the lighthouse to work on. He is also the archivist of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, which takes up further time.

Some nights he takes advantage of the view of the sky from the platform above the lantern to practise his astronomy. 'It is something quite special, it really is.'

He regrets the changes taking place and believes local sailors will miss knowing they are under the keepers' gaze. 'The little boats are upset about us going, because we can watch out for them.

'When we have gone, there will be no one to keep a lookout - the nearest coastguard is miles away at Lee-on-Solent. This is a very busy seaway: we have helped canoes, windsurfers and people who have broken down.

'What's happening is very sad. I haven't thought about what I will do. Most of the older keepers are intending to stay to the bitter end. I certainly will.'

(Photographs omitted)

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