Hamdi the deckhand, was the first to see the lighthouse - on the Red Sea's al-Ikhwan islands (The Brothers) - and by the time the beacon had been shut off for the day, we could see the outline of the lighthouse itself on the horizon.
On a chart of the Red Sea, the al-Ikhwan islands are small dots about 160 kilometers south of Ras Muhammad (100 miles) at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Calling them islands, in fact, is an exaggeration; they're little more than large rocks. Yet to those who know, these tiny coral islets are the stuff of legends. They stand alone in mid-sea; the marine life there is said to be the most prolific in the Red Sea - an area considered the world's foremost underwater paradise; and the shipwrecks attest the fury of their storms.
The island on which the lighthouse stands is about 400 meters long (1,312 feet) with the lighthouse right in the middle and a fringing reef all around.
The lighthouse was built by the British in 1883. Its walls - of cemented stone - are a bit more than a meter thick at the base (four feet) and so strong, according to Muhammad Harga, captain of the lighthouse crew, that the Egyptian government's plans to tear it down several years ago had to be dropped because an inspection proved that nothing comparable could be economically built today. Even though, he added wryly, the beacon operates the same way it did 100 years ago: with a gas-mantle lantern.
A tribute to British workmanship, the light and lens mechanisms - built by Chance Brothers of Birmingham - belong in a museum rather than in a still functioning lighthouse in the space age, along with a polished walnut and glass case, full of brass gears and flywheels.
The lighthouse is rather like a pocket watch on a grand scale, and has a weight suspended on a steel cable. Wound with a hand crank to the top of the lighthouse, this weight, when a lever is thrown, begins a leisurely four hour descent which drives the finely balanced mechanism of a fresnel lens - which magnifies the lantern light 200 times. Although it weighs more than a ton, the four-sided lens can also be turned by hand along its circular track, and despite a few scratches and chips, it looks as if it will still be working after most of us are gone. The light itself is like a huge Coleman lantern - with a mantle, and gas that is hand-pumped.
After a 15-minute warm-up, the mantle begins to glow and the lens begins to turn - focusing the light into four beams flashing over a 32-kilometer radius (20 miles). As the lens and lamp complete a full circuit in 20 seconds, mariners can see a flash every five seconds.
In describing his assignment on al-Ikhwan, Captain Muhammad says it's "a simple job, under difficult conditions," - meaning, he explains, that his crew of four must stay on the island for four-month shifts without electricity, without a source of fresh water and utterly dependent on a supply ship every six weeks for both water and food. Even in emergencies, communications can be difficult since the old Marconi wireless has not functioned properly in 20 years. Once, in fact, when a crew member became seriously ill, they had to set a fire with gasoline and old tires to signal for a boat.
Obviously, Captain Muhammad said, getting along with the crew is important on such a tiny island. "If you don't," he smiled, "there is no place to go." But he also made it clear that he and his crew take their work seriously - and that they feel a kinship with lighthouse keepers everywhere. He inquired about American lighthouses and nodded understandingly when told that most of them are automated. Next year, he said sadly, electricity will come to al-Ikhwan too - in the form of a generator. When it does, the old clockwork will be retired, and a more powerful light will replace the gas mantle.
Still, he said, he has rich memories. Some years ago, for example, President Nasser of Egypt stopped by during a Red Sea cruise. "He took tea with us," said Muhammad with pride.
So did we - tea and groupers, a marvelous eating fish caught by one of our divers, Ali Saad el-Din. Since the crew normally subsists on the small fish they can catch from the pier, the groupers were a treat, so the lighthouse crew pulled out all stops, and turned out one of the finest meals we had in the Red Sea area. It was a memorable note on which to end our visit to this superb relic of another era.
Eric Hanaver is an associate professor of physical education at California State university and is currently working on a divers guide book to the Egyptian Red Sea.