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Serving Aboard a Lightship

Exposed to the open sea, portholes were never left open aboard Nantucket Lightship LV1. As described by Assistant Keeper Axel Bergstrand, the 103-foot schooner-rigged vessel “washed her own decks.” During a nor’easter, she rolled so far to starboard that her lifeboat, high on its davits, filled with water. As she then rolled to port the lifeboat poured out its contents down an opened hatch giving the crew below a cold, impromptu shower!

LV1 was the second lightship to be stationed at Nantucket’s South Shoal. She was held in place using a 2-inch thick chain attached to a 6,500-pound mushroom anchor. But while serving there (1856-1892), she lost anchorage a total of 12 times. On one occasion, she was off station for some twenty days.

Cornfield LV-51 1892-1894.

In December of 1866, Cross Rip Lightship, LV H (Nantucket Sound) lost anchorage during a fierce winter gale. Weighed down with a heavy coating of ice and dragging her anchor chain, she then lost her sails. At the mercy of the sea, the vessel drifted and took on water. A distress signal was hoisted and a short time later a ship bound for New Orleans came alongside. It lowered one of its boats and took on the crew. With LV H still in view her crewmen watched her slip below the waters. About a month later the lightship’s mate telegraphed home informing families of their safe arrival at New Orleans.

Nantucket Lightship LV1 displayed fixed white lights from both of its masts illuminated by 8 oil lamps. At sunrise, crewmen lowered the five-foot diameter lanterns, cleaned their glass and reflectors, and then stored them in a secure timber-framed structure. At sunset the lit lanterns were hoisted back up the masts some 25-feet above the deck. Other duties included cleaning up the ship and keeping the day or night watch.

In fog a crewman rang the hand-operated fog bell once every two minutes. At times the fog bell was sounded day and night for up to several days. By then crewmen might have found it difficult to fall asleep without ringing in their ears!

By the late 1800s most lighthouses and lightships were provided with a small library of books and magazines. As another diversion, crewmen frequently fished over the side of the lightship or from a lifeboat.

Aboard Nantucket South Shoal lightship, crewmen began to weave what became known as Nantucket Lightship Baskets. Local native americans had developed the craft but it was soon taken up as something constructive to do in the crew’s spare time. The basket’s wooden base was made ashore and the weaving took place aboard ship. But for many the ship’s isolation, some 20 miles offshore, was especially felt when a distant buoy disappeared in the fog. It was their only connection to civilization.

The men aboard Brenton Reef’s lightships, stationed at the entrance to Narragansett Bay (RI), had a regular, seasonal companion, “Sea Gull Dick.” Beginning in the mid-1870s and over the next 20 years, the seagull arrived every October and remained until March. During its stay the bird would fly off just a short distance, always staying in sight of the ship. But when the cook came up on deck, it immediately returned to its shipboard perch and waited for its next tasty treat.

Ambrose Relief WAL 505.

For those stationed closer to shore a tender made regular trips out to their vessel. But for the Nantucket South Shoal Lightship and other similarly stationed vessels rough seas often prevented the supply vessel from venturing out from December to May.

A tour of duty aboard the Wreck of Scotland Lightship, stationed off New York Harbor, called for three consecutive months. Getting a willing crew was thus difficult. The owner of a Staten Island boarding house and saloon came up with his own solution for “shanghaiing” replacements. For an extended period he provided housing, unlimited drinks and other entertainment, all on credit. When Scotland’s crewmen returned to shore he told his debtors that they could repay him by crewing aboard the lightship. The recruitment was part of a scam called “crimping,” a slang term for a system of swindling the sailors. The crewmen were only paid at the end of their three-month service. Instead of paying them directly, “the checks were given to the Staten Island saloon keeper.” He then deducted exorbitant credit charges from the sailors, leaving them with very little for their time aboard the lightship. If they refused to comply they mysteriously lost the position aboard the lightship. After serious complaints were made to a lighthouse inspector, the saloon owner, the ship’s captain and its head keeper received their appropriate punishment (NYT, 12/11/1892).

Duty aboard the Diamond Shoal Lightship (NC), meant spending five months before returning to shore. Captained by an individual who was a heavy drinker, over-demanding and constantly demeaning, the ship’s mate and chief engineer approached him to voice the crew’s and their personal grievances. Instead of listening, the captain immediately pulled his revolver. Luckily, the two were able to quickly disarm him. With everyone aboard in agreement, the mutinous men locked up the captain and sailed the ship back into Norfolk. Following an investigation, the captain was discharged and the ship’s mate was promoted as the new captain. In 1911, overwhelmed by the isolation, a crewman aboard Cornfield’s lightship committed suicide in the engine room.

Lightships proved to be stationary targets for errant vessels as these navigational aids were all too frequently struck by passing ships. Cornfield Point Lightship LV 48, posted near the mouth of the Connecticut River on Long Island Sound (1895 to 1925), attained the dubious distinction of holding the site’s record for collisions with passing vessels on that waterway.

The steel-hulled lightship LV 51 served at Cornfield from 1892-1894. She was then posted at Sandy Hook from 1894 to 1908 and then returned to Cornfield in 1919 as a relief vessel. It would be the lightship’s final station. On April 24, 1919, the vessel was rammed, mid-ship, by a Standard oil barge. The crew of seven including its captain had but eight minutes before the lightship slipped to the bottom of Long Island Sound. In 2003, the State of Connecticut declared the wreck a State Archeological Preserve.

By far the worst collision occurred in 1934, when Nantucket Lightship LV 117 was rammed by the sister ship of the Titanic, the RMS Olympic. Seven of the lightship’s crew perished in the accident. On June 24, 1960, Boatswain Mate Bobby Fisher spotted a freighter headed directly for their lightship, Ambrose (NY Harbor) Relief WAL 505. He barely had time to sound the general alarm before the 10,270-deadweight ton vessel smashed into their anchored ship. Luckily, the lightship’s nine crewmen were able to scramble aboard an inflatable raft and paddle away. Ten minutes later, Relief WAL 505 sank stern first in some 100-feet of water.

A total of 120 lightship stations once operated along the Nation’s coasts and Great Lakes. As navigational aids they played an important role marking shoals, wrecks, shallows, harbor entrances and at sites which were deemed too difficult or expensive to erect a lighthouse. Life aboard one of these vessels could vary from a dulling routine to sheer terror. But Coast Guardsman Jay McCarthy serving on the Ambrose Lightship once described how he always enjoyed welcoming in a new day’s unobstructed sunrise and the kick of seeing huge transatlantic vessels entering and departing New York Harbor.

Photos provided by National Archives


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