"One makes note of what one sees, and what one does not see, one does not make note of." This is how some ancient sailing instructions began. Leafing slowly through them is much like travelling. Sailing instructions were created by seamen and were born of factual stories and descriptions. "Remember when you get to that spot that there's a shoal to the right and rocks to the left. There are always cormorants on the rocks, and the cliff on the shore there looks like a mushroom," is an approximate description one seaman might give another. Later, special books of instructions came into being, listing all the shoals, depths, channels, winds, currents and buoys. Matter-of-fact instructions may unexpectedly have a phrase like: "The island resembles a curly head." Many place names are rather poetic. Thus, one finds the following on the Kamchatka Peninsula: "Three Brothers Cliff", "Cape Africa", "Cape Baptism of Fire", "Bay of False News". As you read the names you begin to see things through the eyes of the seafarers who discovered these places.
I came across the description of a little island. It is perhaps the smallest of all inhabited islands, being only fifty paces across. "From afar the island is often mistaken for a ship... The lighthouse on the island lights up the entire horizon. The foghorn sounds on foggy days. If the foghorn is out of order, a bell is rung." I set my heart on visiting the island. I located it on a sea chart at the mouth of the Riga Bay. It was a tiny dot and looked as if someone had dropped a poppy-seed into the sea.
We were standing on the beach at the mouth of the bay.
"You want to go there now? It's nearly dark," the fisherman said and chipped a bit of paint off the old launch thoughtfully. "All right," he said at last.
The four of us shoved the launch into the still water. The motor chugged. Gulls were sleeping on the wet piles and roofs of the fishing sheds,their heads tucked under their wings. Two or three started out after us lazily, but soon turned back. The sea was clear. Stars glimmered overhead. Ah, there it was. Something flashed beyond the horizon. A moment later we located the light and kept gazing at it. It flashed rhythmically, warning any captain that this was the Kolka Lighthouse and he was to detour round the rocky shallows. If not for the countless fishing nets to all sides, our launch could have taken us straight to the lighthouse. The youth standing in the bow watched for the buoys in the milky mist. The launch zigzagged, with the lighthouse now to the left of us, now to the right. Soon we were close enough to tie up, but since there were unexpectedly large waves rolling over the island we pitched like a wooden chip, with the lighthouse looming over us. It was a huge dark tower topped by a blinding ball of light. They spotted us and tossed us a line.
The surf boomed on the rocks. I learned this was a man-made island. In the 19th century there were frequent shipwrecks on the rocky shoals, and the Russian Admiralty finally marked off the danger zone. For many years thereafter ships carrying cargoes of rocks dumped them in the same spot. In winter rocks were transported across the ice on sleighs. In time an island of rock rose from the sea. Topsoil was brought here, too, so that there might be some grass on the island.
There are three spotless houses there. The protective wall around them makes the island resemble a fortress. The lighthouse, a forged iron tower, rises twenty-three meters above ground level. The metal plaque bears the following legend: "Kolka Lighthouse. 1884." There are also instructions for the inhabitants of the island: "Do not forget that the lighthouse is a unique, monumental structure. Preserve it at all costs." The instructions seem to be carried out to the letter, for the yard and houses are spic-and-span. The huge, gleaming beacon is truly impressive. When the light is out you think you are peering into a great chunk of pure rock-crystal. It is impossible to look at the light that goes on and off within arm's reach.
Lights dot the far horizon. These are ships at sea. Not one of them will come close, for the huge beacon keeps repeating: these are shoals, these are shoals. Thus, the lighthouse is doomed to eternal solitude. Perhaps a fisherman who has lost his way will dock here, or birds flying by will be attracted by the light and beat against the glass. Seals have been known to come here to lie on the warm rocks.
"On a clear day you can see the remains of a sailing ship on the bottom," Alexei Sopronyuk, the keeper, said as he took us around the island.
"This is where we live, and this is the radio station. The diesels are here. The light is monitored by an electronic device. We strike this bell when it's foggy. So you want to know what life is like here? Well, we look after the light, fish for eels, develop and print our own photographs, read a lot, knock the ice off the island in winter and wait for the next team to relieve us at the end of the week."
Teams of three men are on duty here. Every seven days a new team comes out.
"We waited for the next team for four weeks in the autumn of 1963. A storm raged for thirty-two days then. The island was like a sheet of ice, and we were trapped on it. We ate everything that was edible and were about to cook our boots when a helicopter was finally able to reach us."
I bid the light-keepers farewell at midnight. A day later we were flying low over Kolka and thought of landing, but since there was not an extra inch of space on the island we circled over the lighthouse, tossed the fellows a note and saw them catch the piece of cardboard we had weighted with a bolt. As we rose to return to the mainland, the light flashed in the tower. That was their way of saying goodbye. Gray clouds swept over the sea. The beacon could be seen far across the dark, choppy waters.