Zinc in Cape Horn!




Roger Baltus's column #8

Zinc in Cape Horn!

Since the beginning of the 19th century, zinc has been installed on all continents, and sometimes in the most improbable conditions. I will be telling you about “extreme zinc” projects in this column on a regular basis, bringing you information on exceptional creations.

To inaugurate this theme: the renovation of a lighthouse erected by the Argentineans in 1884 on Staten Island, to the east of Cape Horn, which inspired Jules Verne's last novel “The Lighthouse at the End of the World”*.

The commander of this epic adventure was a certain André Bronner, known as Yul, a sailor from La Rochelle in France. This Frenchman in his forties was a pioneer in round-the-world sailing races aboard the famous catamaran “Charente-Maritime”. He was Philippe Poupon's co-skipper aboard “Fleury-Michon” from 1989. During the winter of 1993, he disembarked with a group of friends on Staten island, a large rock of 65 km in length off the coast of Tierra del Fuego, exposed in all seasons to extremely violent icy winds and almost daily rain. This exceptional and harsh territory immediately won Yul over and the following year he decided to roam though it alone for three months. Thus putting his life in danger as a self-elected castaway, he discovered what he came looking for: the ruins of a mythical lighthouse abandoned by the Argentineans in 1902. In this particular case, a pile of rough-hewn boards seventy metres above the sea on the top of a cliff.

On returning to La Rochelle, the navigator founded the Lighthouse at the End of the World association. He convinced a small group of friends made up of sailors, scientists, carpenters, artists and zinc workers (including Jean Sécheresse, one of our VMZINC technicians), to help him make a crazy dream come true: to rebuild the modest hut and its dome, which was originally in sheet metal. This can be seen on the only photo of the lighthouse, taken by a Belgian expedition in 1898 and subsequently re-engraved. The plans and majority of archives are nowhere to be found in Argentina. Nonetheless, the dream team came to the conclusion that the building was probably made up of eleven sections. It built a 1:2 scale replica, which was presented at the Paris Boatshow in 1996.

This incredible project generated other initiatives. The mayor of Ushuaia, under the jurisdiction of which Staten Island falls, declared the project to be of Municipal Utility (after a proposal by Jacques Chirac who had given an original copy of Jules Verne's book to President Carlos Menem) and authorised its reconstruction.

VMZINC was one of the sponsors who rallied around the cause of the Lighthouse at the End of the World, agreeing to test its products in this distant land with its extreme climate. In 1997, our technicians set to work in their workshops testing various technical solutions. They finally decided on an octagonal system with facets featuring flat lock strips, and an impressive ornament on the ridge cap topped with a dome and a cross. And Jean Sécheresse was put in charge of roofing the lighthouse!

In January 1998, an expedition made up of approximately ten enthusiasts and 17 tons of material docked at Isla de los Estados. A two-month long Dantean project began. The men had to carry the material on their backs 70 metres above sea level, walking over rough, soft terrain swept by unpredictable winds. The sheets of zinc, some of which were 5 metres long, were constantly threatening to blow away or bend. A month later, the QUARTZ-ZINC roof was finally installed on a magnificent timber frame. The dome was mounted on the ridge cap. The lighthouse, which had been out of action for a long time, lit up and was officially launched on 28 February by the Argentinean authorities.

If you don't have the time or the nerve to travel to the Lighthouse at the End of the World in Tierra del Fuego, you can visit its exact replica, constructed on piles in the sea in 2000, again at Yul's initiative, in the marina in La Rochelle, opposite the Minimes headland, almost 13,000 kilometres from the original.

So now you know that far away, near Cape Horn, a small VMZINC roof has been valiantly resisting the unchained elements, harsh conditions and corrosion caused by sea salt for almost eighteen years now. A little roof that enables this extreme lighthouse with its useful light to continue guiding many sailors passing through this hostile territory.

Behind this feat lies a human story of hard work and passion, our favourite kind of story.


Roger Baltus
Engineer- Architect
VMZINC Communication Director


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