From my favorite reading spot in our Rockville living room with its picture-window view of the ramparts of Zion’s West Temple, I need only move my head a few degrees to also view large photo prints of six lighthouses on both coasts hanging from the surrounding log walls while small table-top models of four more look down from overhead. My favorite 16X20 framed print, a view of Maine’s Pemaquid Point light it took me four years of visits to capture in a particularly elusive setting, hangs inches above the office keyboard where I spend much of my time. This love affair began for me as a small boy, and perhaps – if you believe in the power of DNA – perhaps a century before my birth.
It is something of an irony therefore to realize that the very first flashing coastal light which made its imprint on my cerebral cortex was the famous Ambrose Light, nine miles out to sea from New Jersey’s Sandy Hook; ironic in that that legendary light marking the entrance to New York Harbor was actually swinging from the tall mast of an anchored vessel positioned in a location where it was impossible to construct a real lighthouse; one of more than 180 such “floating” light stations to gird the U.S. and its Great Lakes in the heyday of lightships, working partners with their more than 1200 stationary cousins.
While England beat us to it by four decades, the U.S. Congress got around to initiating a system of lightships beginning with a station at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1820. Between then and 1983, we would build 179 of these unique sea-going vessels. Anchored to one spot, a lightship could be moored in shallow water, on shifting shoals or in deep water many miles from shore, where a stationary lighthouse was impossible or impracticable. What’s more, it could be easily reassigned and moved to another location as needed or as navigation requirements changed. Because they were manned by a full working crew, they could be self-serviced and operate as weather-reporting and radio-signal stations with expanded navigation and even life-saving capabilities. With fog an ever-lurking hazard on all of our coasts, hand-rung bells eventually gave way to powerful air horns, so loud that crew members were driven below decks to avoid ear damage, sometimes for days on end.
Lightship duty was no picnic to begin with. Held on station by massive mushroom-shaped anchors weighing many tons, a lightship vessel was a “sitting duck” for every storm-driven sea and gale to come along, with neither port of refuge in which to take shelter nor ability to maneuver in the face of giant waves. Operated by the U.S. Coast Guard after 1939, lightship assignments were for eight months with a shore leave at the midpoint. Quarters for the 7 – 9-man crews were anything but luxurious, with a salt-beef, potato and onion mixture known as “souse” a regular menu staple.
In all, 10 lightships never came home, and 50 sailors lost their lives in their service over the years. LV-72 BUFFALO was swallowed with all hands by the Great White Storm of 1913 on Lake Erie, Diamond Shoal Lightship LV- 71 was sunk by a German U-boat in 1918 and LV-73 on Vineyard Sound station went down with her crew in the hurricane of Sept., 1944. In the early morning hours of June 24th, 1960, the U.S. Cargo vessel Green Bay, driving through heavy fog rammed LV-78 RELIEF keeping duty on Ambrose Channel station sending that ship to the bottom in mere minutes. Her nine-man crew survived in a life raft, but were not even given shore leave before returning to duty, several of them back to Ambrose station on the replacement ship. Dozens of “brushes” with large ships and near collisions fill the diaries and log books of Lightship sailors who go down in history as “a breed apart”, dedicated to an unofficial Coast Guard saying: “You have to go out. . . you don’t have to come back”.
Finally, on August 23rd, 1983, modern-day technology did what the mighty sea had failed to accomplish. On that day the 700,000 candlepower light (the most powerful ever to shine) aboard WLV-613 on NANTUCKET station was extinguished marking the end of an era. The final radio message from the vessel reads: “We must now look somewhere else to find stuff that sea stories are made of”.
Lightship LV-78, acting as a Relief ship for the regular AMBROSE station-keeper in dock for repairs, was struck and sunk by a large cargo-carrier off course and blinded by fog, June 24th,1960.
U.S. Lightships were painted bright red with the name of their station printed large on their sides. This particular RELIEF, now a museum in Seattle harbor is one of only 15 still around for viewing today.