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In 1819, John Pool of Hampton, Va., was awarded a contract for a vessel of "…70 tons burthen, copper-fastened a cabin with four berths, at least ...spars, a capstan, belfry, yawl and davits..." In the summer of 1820, he delivered the first "light boat", which was initially stationed off Willoughby Spit, Va., as an aid to Chesapeake Bay commerce. Storms and heavy seas, however, scourged this exposed position, and the vessel had to be shifted to a safer anchorage off Craney Island, near Norfolk, VA. Within a year, four more lightships appeared, marking dangerous shoals in the Chesapeake. America’s first true "outside" lightship, anchored in the open sea instead of in a bay or inlet, entered service off Sandy Hook, N.J. in 1823. During the period 1820-1983, 116 lightship stations were established by the United States at one time or another. This figure includes those stations that were renamed and moved to a different position to better serve the same purpose, and those taken over later by Canada. The number of stations existing at any one time peaked in 1909 when 56 lightships were maintained. Responsibility for American lightships rested with the Lighthouse Establishment until 1852, the Lighthouse Board until 1910, the Lighthouse Service until 1939 and the Coast Guard after 1939.

As seamarks, lightships satisfied multiple requirements. They could be moored in shallow water, even near shifting shoals where fixed structures could not be placed. They could just as easily be stationed in deep water many miles from shore, to serve as a landfall or a point of departure for trans-oceanic traffic. And being vessels, they could be readily repositioned to suit changing needs. In these roles, lightships served as day beacons, as light platforms by night, as sound signal stations in times of reduced visibility, and around the clock as transmitters of bearing- and distance-finding electronic signals. Outages or difficulties with any of their systems and equipment could be immediately detected and remedied on the spot by the crew. During their relatively brief era, US lightships evolved into highly sophisticated and efficient aids to navigation.

Initially, lightships were exceedingly poor light platforms; their full body, shoal draft and light displacement combining to cause undue rolling and violent pitching. Such rolling and pitching, in turn, resulted in frequent loss of moorings and breakage or damage to the lanterns. Certainly by present-day standards, crew accommodations on early lightships would have been judged uninhabitable. In 1891, a visitor to Nantucket Lightship reported on the boredom and discomfort he found there. The weather could toss the vessel about so violently that even veteran sailors became seasick. On calm days, nausea gave way to tedium, for the crew could service the light and make things shipshape within a few hours, leaving the rest of the day for making rattan baskets to sell ashore or for simply whittling away the hours. Seldom did anyone visit the ship’s small library, and even shipboard food was monotonous, wholesome though it was. The most common dish was "scouse," which impressed the visitor as a "wonderful commingling of salt beef, potatoes and onions." And, in terms of tours of duty aboard early lightships, crewmembers spent eight months of the year at sea, two four-month stints separated by shore leave.

A visit to Nantucket in the early 1970s would have produced a much different report. Scientific advances in hull design, the use of bilge keels, plus adoption of improved ballasting techniques produced more stable vessels. Not only did new hull designs reduce roll, but diesel engines also helped the captain keep his vessel headed into the wind for even greater stability. Unfortunately for some, however, the smell of diesel fuel was almost as distressing as the motion the engines helped prevent. Over the years, creature comforts were upgraded too. Reading would become a popular pastime on lightships while radio, and later, television, helped to dispel boredom. Cooks produced a variety of meals, and the murderous four-month tour was reduced to approximately 30 days. One change, though, was for the worse, at least as far as crew comfort was concerned. The bleat of modern fog-horns was so loud that anyone venturing on deck without ear protectors risked pain and deafness.

Life aboard the lightships, aside from being viewed as monotonous by many, was exposed to many hazards. Dangers posed by weather and collision were ever-present. Official records contain 237 instances of lightships being blown adrift or dragged off-station in severe weather or moving ice. Five lightships were lost under such conditions, but the majority, despite heavy damage to hull and superstructure on many of these occasions, remained on station unassisted. This attests to a high order of seamanship, and commendations for bravery and outstanding ship handling often resulted.

In 1966, the Coast Guard began investigating the possibility of replacing lightships with Large Navigational Buoys or LNBs. Far from being a minor navigational aid, these so-called "monster buoys" have hulls up to 40 feet in diameter with a depth of up to 7 ½ feet. The LNB prototype, constructed in 1969, had a steel hull subdivided by six bulkheads. These more cost-effective LNBs, along with "Texas Towers," huge, permanent platforms, served as the death knell of lightships in the United States.

29 March 1985, saw the final chapter of America’s lightship era come to a close with the decommissioning of Nantucket I. In a farewell message, Coast Guard Commandant ADM James S. Gracey said, "Technology has found a way to replace her with a more cost-effective aid to navigation, but Nantucket I’s sailors can never be replaced." In many cases lightships were replaced with "Texas Tower" type offshore light platforms, other fixed structures or large navigational monster buoys, all offering considerable savings in manpower and in construction and maintenance costs. The last message sent by the ship read in part, "An important part of Coast Guard history ended today. We must now look somewhere else to find the stuff that sea stories are made of."

Most of the decommissioned lightships are long gone. Quite a few were sold and served in coastwise and harbor roles. Two provided bonfires at Fourth of July celebrations and several were used as target ships by the Navy. A few were transferred to other countries for use as lightships, some were used as floating clubhouses by various organizations, but the majority ended up in a ship breakers yard. However, 19 lightships still survive, the three oldest built in 1904. Most of these veterans remain afloat, restored for use as museums or exhibits open to the public. Two serve as floating restaurants and one is in use in the charter trade.

Survivors from Five Fathom Lightship #37, which took four men to the bottom with it, told of how their ship foundered off Five Fathom Bank, N.J. after an army of mountainous waves marched across its bulwarks, tore off its ventilators and hatch covers and filled it with water through the resulting deck openings.

There were no survivors, however, when Buffalo Lightship #82, located near Buffalo, N.Y., foundered in a gale that swept across Lake Erie in November 1913, but a message from its dead captain to his wife told it all. Scrawled on a board that washed ashore a few days after the disaster, the message read: "Goodbye, Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. — Williams." Six months passed before the submerged wreck was located, more than two miles from its assigned station. A diver who penetrated the 63 feet of water that enshrouded Buffalo #82 reported that the storm had apparently parted its cables, battered in its superstructure, then dragged it to destruction. The body of one of the six men lost with it was found a year later, 13 miles from the site of the sinking.

Cross Rip Lightship #6 left no survivors or messages when it vanished off Massachusetts with all hands on 5 February 1918. Observers on shore reported seeing the helpless lightship torn loose from its moorings by a huge mass of windblown ice and carried away. The aged wooden vessel had no masts, sails or other means of motive power and, not being equipped with a radio, its fate and that of its six-man crew remained a mystery for 15 years. No trace of the ship was found until 1933, when a government dredge working in the Vineyard Sound area sucked up splintered pieces of oak planking and ribs, and a section of a windlass believed to be from the long-lost vessel. The most likely explanation for its loss is that the ice crushed its hull, and the crewmen perished in the winter sea.

In December 1936, a 100-mph gale assailed Swiftsure Lightship #113, anchored in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast. "The wind came shrieking and snarling out of the south," its skipper recalled, "blowing a hurricane." The sea, he declared "writhed and steamed like a bowl of boiling milk," and the sky was "full of innumerable tiny particles of water torn from the crests of the waves until the air was so thick we could barely see half the length of our vessel." Captain Eric Lindman flinched as waves broke over the pilothouse and the seas forced its way "through every fissure, no matter how small, even squirting in through the keyholes in the outer cabin doors." Unlike its ill-fated sisters, however, Swiftsure survived the intense 12-hour battering.

A mystery surrounds the loss of Vineyard Sound Lightship #73, which foundered during a 1944 hurricane with the loss of all hands. Its storm-battered wreck was explored by divers a few weeks after it sank, and again 20 years later, yet the actual cause of its loss remains unknown. Residents of Westport, Mass., reported seeing a series of red and white flares streaking across the cloud-filled skies in the general direction of the lightship. After the storm abated somewhat, they struggled down to the beach and scanned the murky horizon, only to discover that Vineyard Sound #73, which had been guarding Sow and Pigs Reef, had vanished from its station.

Storms were certainly not a lightship’s only threat. Man, rather than nature, caused the loss of the Diamond Shoals Lightship #71 in 1918 off Cape Hatteras, N.C. A German submarine, provoked by the lightship’s radio message warning off shipping, surfaced and, after allowing the 12-man crew to abandon ship, sank it with shellfire. The lightship’s sacrifice was not in vain though, for more than 25 Allied ships had received its timely radio warning.

There are 150 documented cases of serious collisions. Most of these involved sailing vessels, but long tows of multiple barges accounted for a sizeable number. Collision damage ranged from superficial to severe, and, in at least one case, the lightship came out unscathed, with the colliding vessel going down nearby. On another occasion when a lightship was struck by a passing vessel, the impact was sufficient to knock the on-watch lightship crew from their feet, and shatter all 16-lamp chimneys in the masthead lanterns.

On 15 May 15 1934, Nantucket Lightship #117 was riding at anchor in 192 feet of water off Nantucket Shoals. Its horn boomed into the fog to warn away the trans-Atlantic shipping that passed nearby. Unseen by sailors aboard Nantucket was the 47,000-ton British luxury liner Olympic. Steering to the lightship’s radio beacon signal, the ocean liner intended to alter course at the last moment and pass close by Nantucket. On the bridge of Olympic, someone had miscalculated. The liner, sister ship to Titanic, suddenly materialized out of the fog; its towering bow hung poised like the blade of a guillotine, then severed the lightship in two. Seven of Nantucket’s 11-man crew died in the collision. In response to the tragedy, the British government replaced Nantucket with a new lightship, one resembling a miniature battleship. Its hull was fashioned from armor plate, enclosing a maze of 43 watertight compartments. Atop its mast was a light visible from almost 50 miles. And, whenever the foghorn would sound, a radio transmitter would automatically broadcast a signal, enabling navigators of oncoming ships to calculate the distance to the lightship. Besides Nantucket, four other lightships were sunk as the result of being rammed. Fog was a factor in many of these collisions, however most occurred under conditions of reasonably good visibility. Vessels attempting to cross the bow of the lightship without making due allowance for current and leeway were found to be the usual cause.

For a complete list of U.S. lightships go to this Link.