On Diamond Shoals with all its dreads,
There’s a flashing buoy and a ship painted red…
‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’
Imagine a ship with a go-nowhere mission, its sole purpose to sit anchored at sea pitching and rolling with the swells. Other ships looked for it and expected to find it in a prescribed spot, but carefully steered clear, as if some horrible plague was aboard. By day its colorfully-painted hull contrasted with the blue sea and sky, and at night it shone like a bright lantern afloat on the water. In fog or storms, its bell bonged or a horn croaked loudly to warn other ships of its presence.
Just such a ship existed twenty years ago at Nantucket Shoals. More than a hundred of its kind were afloat off the American coast at the turn of the century, with perhaps a thousand in service worldwide. What manner of vessel drew such a strange assignment? The lightship.
This sturdy navigational aid was a commingling of lighthouse and ship, lightkeeper and sailor. Its job was to anchor at sea near perilous rocks and bars to warn other ships away, or it served as a guidepost for the approach to an important port or inlet. Whatever the task, it was duty that proved monotonous and dangerous, inglorious and unpopular, at times even mad.
Lightships once lit the seaways practically everywhere there was water in or along the U.S., including the Great Lakes and the mighty Mississippi. Their names reflected the hazards they marked — Nantucket Shoals, Carysfort Reef, Hen & Chickens, Columbia Bar, Wolf Trap, Sandy Hook, the Frying Pan, Rattlesnake Shoal, Fishing Rip, Combahee Bank. The last of these antique signposts at sea was decommissioned more than a decade ago, replaced by modern technology. But for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, these briny traffic signals guided shipping where lighthouses could not be built and buoys proved inadequate.
No ship was ever pressed into service under greater need yet was so ungainly of countenance and so despised by its crew. Lightship duty was the best and the worst. Said one skipper aboard the Cross Rip Lightship, which guarded Tuckernuck Shoal, Massachusetts: “If it weren’t for the disgrace it would bring upon my family. I’d rather go to state prison. Yet I know there’s no nobler duty to be served aboard any vessel anywhere.”
The world’s first official lightship, the Nore, went into service in the Thames River estuary in 1731, guiding ships into England’s busiest harbor. Her British designer received a patent for the 12-foot crossbeam on her single mast from which twin lanterns were suspended. She was, in essence, a floating lighthouse, a glowing sloop anchored near the uncertain river bottom where mud and silt would not support a light tower. Her keepers were a half dozen able-bodied seamen who spent their days looking longingly toward the bounding main and dreaming of exotic ports, all the while stuck over the muck within sight and sound of the marvelous delights of London’s shantytown.
It wasn’t long before the major ports of the world adopted the idea of the lightship, for it seemed the best way to mark offshore danger zones and guide vessels into port. The earliest light vessels in the U.S. were small boats moored in bays. The first one went into service at Craney Island, Virginia in 1821 and was tended by a lone lamplighter who rowed to it nightly to kindle its lantern and returned at dawn to extinguish it. Later, revenue cutters were refitted to make larger lightships with permanent crews. These could be anchored off the coastline miles at sea. The first such “outside” lightship in the nation was assigned in 1823 to the sealane off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the busy artery for New York Harbor.
Two sizes of lightships came into initial use. Small vessels displaced 100-tons or less; larger lightships could go as big as 300-tons. They had little or no motive power and were designed with a bulky, flattened hull with a bilge keel added to reduce rolling in heavy seas. Huge mushroom-shaped anchors held them on position, digging firmly into the seabed. Each link in the anchor chain was the diameter of a dinner plate.
Heavy seas sometimes did mysterious things to the anchor. In 1951, after a May storm pummeled the Eastern Seaboard, the anchor chain of Barnegat Lightship #79 was found tied in a perfect overhand knot. Scientists and seaman alike were baffled, but quickly attributed the curiosity to freak wave action. The tender Sassafras raised the anchor onto her deck and carefully worked out the knot.
The preferred hull material was wood, since it was thought to stand up to pounding seas better than metal. But in warmer waters marine worms were a problem. The first Charleston Lightship rotted away in only eight years. It was replaced by a vessel with an iron hull. Here again were problems. Iron demanded frequent painting to inhibit rust, and tenacious marine creatures encrusted the bottom. Crewman spent many hours wielding scrapers, brushes, and the handy “Lightship Barnacle Bumper,” an implement that resembled a large hoe.
|The old single mast Carpentaria Lightship from Australia, now part of the maritime museum in Sydney. It had a sweet little Fresnel lens and a fogbell. A docent told me he thought it was maintained one day a week by an Aussie lamplighter. Author Photo|
Severe storms or the movement of ice sometimes dragged the anchor or parted its chain, setting a lightship adrift. There was little or no motive power on these vessels —certainly not enough to hold a position in heavy seas or against an ice floe. Pushed off station, a lightship became a hazard. It no longer marked its true spot and was a derelict with a helpless crew still aboard. There were always hours of concern until a tug reached the vessel and towed her back to her proper position.
During the worst weather when other ships headed for safety, the lightship remained on duty, often sacrificing itself. Buffalo Lightship #22 sank in Lake Erie in a November 1913 storm after being swamped by a huge wave. All hands died and the vessel was never salvaged. A similar fate befell the Cuttyhunk Lightship off Cape Cod in September 1944. Nothing was recovered from her except the bodies of two crewmen. Vineyard Lightship # 73 was equally unfortunate, though five of her crew were ashore on leave.
Even on position, a lightship was at risk. During a storm or heavy fog other ships sometimes crashed into it. Ambrose Lightship off busy New York Harbor was hit often. The damage usually was minor, but on a foggy day in 1934 the lightship at Nantucket Shoals was cut in two and sunk by the huge liner, Olympia, sister ship to the Titanic. The Nantucket sank in a matter of minutes, and 7 of the 11-man crew died.
Wartime also saw the loss of lightships. In August 1918 the Diamond Shoals Lightship sighted a German submarine attacking a freighter and sent a message to all nearby vessels to steer clear of the enemy U-boat. In doing so, she made herself the target. With no guns to defend herself, she became a sad casualty of war.
Lightship duty was tedious and difficult. Resident crews of 6 to 12 men lived in cramped quarters, ate mundane meals of salt beef and biscuits, and did repetitious jobs without any change in scenery for long periods, even during the foulest weather. If visibility was poor, the fog bells and horns deprived even the hardiest man of sleep. Seasickness was a problem too, since lightships were anchored and rolled constantly. Some men couldn’t overcome it and had special waivers from lightship duty placed in their service records.
Crewmen were chosen based on seamanship ability and mechanical aptitude. They called themselves “fish” because of the long months they spent at sea. Those less enamored of the job referred to themselves as “flotsam.” Maritime historian James Gibbs noted that “temperamental and impatient individuals are not for lightships.” Most of a crewman’s day was spent working at shipboard duties, cleaning and repairing the beacons, or standing watch. To assuage the tedium there were hobbies such as scrimshaw, whittling, and ships in bottles. The crewmen of the Nantucket Lightship were known for their handsome baskets.
Many crews also kept pets. The Minots Ledge Lightship off Cohasset, Massachusetts had a dog on board that was trained to swim to passing ships to pick up newspapers and mail in a special waterproof pouch attached to her back. Charleston Lightship #53 had “Tom,” a hefty old striped cat born on the vessel and encharged with keeping down the rodent population. The skipper said of him:
“When the boat goes in to dock, he’ll go ashore, get into a few fights, and come aboard next morning with scratches and general evidence of having had a night of it. But you may be sure he’ll never let the ship leave without him.”
The deck of a lightship was cluttered with machinery to maintain the beacon and fog signal. Early on, cannons and bells sounded the fog warnings and had to be tended by hand, but by about 1860 automatic bell-striking mechanisms had been designed. Whistles, sirens, and horns replaced some of the bells in the late 1800s. These required cantankerous boilers to make steam for the bellows, but also enormous fortitude on the part of the crew. In places like New England and the Pacific Northwest, fog plagued the shoreline up to a third of the year. The constant coal shoveling for the boilers and the never-ending din of the horns wore down many a seaman and added colorful comments to the ship’s logbook.
The hallmark of the lightship – the signature that made it easily identifiable at sea – was the light basket or light cage. Most lightships had two, mounted near the top of masts. The earliest beacons were oil lamps, which were fueled on deck then hauled up the masts on their own little pulley systems. Gimbals kept the lamps level as the ship rolled in the waves. Later, gas and electric lights were used in conjunction with small lenses to increase brilliance.
|Mushroom anchor on the LV Columbia at Astoria. Author Photo|
Advances in marine engineering eventually rendered lightships obsolete. Screwpile lighthouses with their iron legs screwed deep into the seafloor, caisson lighthouses atop firmly sunk concrete piers, and huge Texas Towers similar to oil rigs upstaged the small lightship at anchor. Where permanent structures could not be built, the Large Navigation Buoy could be moored to do the same functions as a lightship cheaper, better, and with less danger to human life.
The last lightship was taken out of service in 1982. It had served on Nantucket Shoals and carried the nickname of its predecessors — “The Statue of Liberty of the Seas.” Until 1886 when the true Lady Liberty was lit in New York Harbor, it was the first beacon immigrants sighted when headed to America, the first symbol of freedom in a new land. After its ceremonious decommissioning, it visited a number of East Coast ports looking for a retirement home. Today it sits at Captains Cove in Bridgeport, Connecticut under restoration in preparation for a new career as a museum piece.
Although earlier decommissioned lightships suffered humiliating ends as scrap metal and targets for Navy torpedoes, about a dozen have been preserved and opened to the public. They can be toured at places like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the Coast Guard Museum in Seattle, South Street Seaport in New York City, and Virginia’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
Still, some have fared poorly. Historic Barnegat Lightship #79, stationed on Five Fathom Bank and Barnegat Shoals, was decommissioned in 1969 and passed from museum to museum without proper care. She is now at Pine Point Marina in Camden, New Jersey, languishing in the muck of the Delaware River, her century-old hull badly leaking. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic landmark, there is no funding for restoration at this time.
Relics like Barnegat Lightship represent a colorful but almost-forgotten chapter in the long struggle to make our seaways safe. There were once hundreds of them guarding the outermost perils along America’s shores. Today there are none. Maritime historian H.C. Adamson gave a fine farewell tribute to them in his Keepers of the Lights: “Never in the entire history of the sea have smaller ships and fewer men been entrusted with bigger jobs or performed them with greater credit.”
Photos in this blog are from various sources, but primarily gifts from the collections of Doug Bingham and Jim Gibbs.
|Aerial view of LV Columbia on duty at the mouth of the Columbia River.|
|Sketch of the New South Shoals LV in stormy seas with light baskets lowered.|
|Sevenstones LV, England. Courtesy of National Maritime Museum.|
|San Francisco LV as it passes the work to a Large Navigation Buoy in 1971. The vessel was then retired.|
|Minots Ledge LV that preceded the Minots Ledge Lighthouse.|