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Owned by the State

Cordouan, a State-owned monument and lighthouse

The Cordouan lighthouse is going through changes. Its historic role as an aid to navigation for mariners no longer requires the permanent presence of technicians from the Phares et Balises (the French lighthouse authority). Cordouan, however, is also an historic monument, first listed in 1862, and open to the public from an even earlier date. The State, and particularly the Ministries of Ecology and Culture, have a responsibility to preserve this outstanding structure in its dual role as a signal to mariners and a national monument.

Cordouan, a signal for mariners

For seafarers, the historic Cordouan lighthouse is a maritime signal station (Établissement de Signalisation Maritime, or ESM) at the mouth of the Gironde estuary. It is instantly recognisable to navigators thanks to its light signature: three occlusions over a period of 12 seconds. The range of the lighthouse beam is 19.5 nautical miles, or just over 36 km.

Built on a plateau of the same name, Cordouan serves as an aid to navigation for any navigator seeking to enter the Gironde estuary via the main channel (green sector light) or the southern channel (red sector light).

Cordouan and advances in lighthouse technology

When first lit in 1611, the Cordouan beacon fire was fuelled with a mixture of wood, pitch and tar, and placed under a small dome, 37 metres above sea level. Over the centuries, the types of fuel superseded one another: whale oil, coal, various oils (from 1790 onwards), petroleum gas (from 1907 onwards) until the advent of electricity in 1948. The necessary wattage has fallen from some 6,000 watts to 250 watts, thanks to a metal-halide bulb. These technical changes have made it possible to maintain the range of the lighthouse beam whilst reducing its wattage.

Nowadays, five generators supply power to two banks of twelve batteries powering all of the lighthouse’s electrical systems. This system was supplemented in 2012 by remote telemetry to monitor the status of the light 24/7. Although the technical installations are now far more autonomous than ever before, constant human monitoring and intervention is still required. This is why the Phares et Balises authority team (DIRM Sud Atlantique) keeps a watchful eye on the workings of the lighthouse from Le Verdon-sur-Mer, standing by ready to step in at any time, if necessary.

Cordouan, an Historic Monument

Lashed by the waves at high tide and battered by storms, Cordouan is exposed to extreme conditions that call for a complex and costly maintenance policy.
In 2005, two Ministries – that of Culture and that of Infrastructure/Ecology – and the local authorities concerned reached an agreement on financing urgent and impressive work on the lighthouse. The section of the lighthouse most exposed to the swell is now protected by a concrete shell and anchored to the ground by steel stakes.

The Ministry of Ecology started work on waterproofing the base plate roof in 2010. The work continued since winter 2013-2014, as part of changes to the site, whose day-to-day management the State has entrusted to SMIDDEST. A management plan with a clear vision for the future of the lighthouse will make it possible to source the funding needed for its conservation, with a view to achieving World Heritage status.
A new system of governance for the site must now be devised, bringing together the State, local authorities and all those working for the future of Cordouan.