Cape Race: 'Still A Place For A Lighthouse'

The Cape Race Lighthouse has warned boats off Canada's rocky coast for more than a century. It lies just south of the eastern-most point in North America. On the kind of stormy day the lighthouse was built for, its keeper talks about hanging on in one of the farthest corners in North America.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Off the northeastern tip of North America on Newfoundland lies a stretch of the coast known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. The rocky shoreline has sunk hundreds of ships. Reporter Emma Jacobs traveled to the red and white lighthouse on the tip of Cape Race that still warns ships away from the coast.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: The day I visited in late fall was the kind of day the Cape Race lighthouse was built for. Twenty-foot swells rolled in towards the point through a thick fog.

MICHAEL WARD: As you can see, it's crashing up on the rocks up here. You can see the spray going up in the air, up here on the point.

JACOBS: Michael Ward has been the head lighthouse-keeper for twelve years, since not long after he was crushed in an accident on a fishing trawler. He spent four months in a hospital bed with cracked ribs and a shattered pelvis. Today, he stays in a little white house that sits on fields of rolling brown scrub, kept short by constant wind.

Cape Race lies just south of the easternmost point in North America. Trans-Atlantic voyagers have gotten their bearings from this spit of land since the 15th century.

WARD: It's somewhere in the vicinity of 360 shipwrecks in this area that are known about. And how many, you know, ships disappeared or whatever and it could have been in this area, but there was no proof.

JACOBS: Ward himself helped rescue a couple off a sailboat that had been driven onto the shoals. After racing to direct a nearby fishing boat to the wreck from his radio, he stood on the rocks above, prepared with life vests. The passengers were saved, but the sailboat sank.

WARD: That can only make you imagine like years ago when they had no sets, VHF to call and say I'm in distress in Cape Race. You know what I mean? It's very, very scary.

JACOBS: Icebergs float down each spring from the Arctic - the kind that sunk the Titanic nearly a hundred years ago. By then, Cape Race had added a wireless station, which received the very first distress call from the failing ship.

Dave Myrick was the last of a family line manning the lighthouse since 1872. And he says his uncle Jim was said to be the one who heard the Titanic's calls. Today, Myrick says the transponders and radar and equipment make boating an altogether different thing that what his family remembers. But, on the shore of Cape Race, on the treacherous Newfoundland coast, Michael Ward says there's still a place for the old fashion lighthouse.

WARD: And you can have whatever new technology you like on boats, but it can't replace the eyes and ears.

JACOBS: For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Listen to the story that I'm going to tell. It was on a Sunday night when that ship went out of sight. But they say when the great ship when down.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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