by Charles W Lindenberg

"As you stare across the six miles separating you from the rest of the world, you sweep the shoreline with powerful 7x50 binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of bright colored cloth to remind you that there are girls out there somewhere........."



It is the early 1950s, you’re a young seaman, recently out of Coast Guard boot camp, and ready to see the world. Stories of great liberty ports and sea duty have fired your imagination. You’re ready to join the "salts" of the earth.

Your assignment . . . Lightship Duty.

Lightships: Those red vessels with big white names painted on their sides, advertising their station. The first lightship in this country, anchored off Norfolk in Chesapeake Bay in 1821, was a boat with a mast on which lanterns swung, and a keeper who rowed out each day to light them. The first "outside" lightship, actually in the ocean, was moored off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1823. The maximum number of lightships in service peaked in 1909, with a total of 56. In the 13th Coast Guard District there are four: the COLUMBIA, anchored just outside the treacherous Columbia Bar; the UMATILLA, six miles west of Cape Alava on the Washington coast; the SWIFTSURE, in the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca; and your assignment, the RELIEF, which takes the place of the other vessels when they need maintenance.

The List of Lights, (Vol. I, 1963) states that "lightships are aids to navigation placed in exposed locations where it is impractical to construct fixed aids to navigation. They provide light, fog and radiobeacon signals, and are distinguished from each other by the characteristics of their signals in the manner of any other aid to navigation. . . .

"Relief lightships may be placed at any of the lightship stations and, when practicable, exhibit light, sound and radiobeacon signs having the same characteristics as the station. Relief lightships are painted the same color as the regular station ships, with the word RELIEF in white letters on both sides. . . . "

Your assigned vessel, LV (Light Vessel) 83, re-designated WAL 508 when the U.S. Coast Guard took over the lighthouse service in 1939, slid down the ways in Camden, New Jersey in 1904, at a cost of $90,000. From there she sailed to San Francisco in company with LV 76 and in 1905 became the BLUNTS REEF lightship. When you report for duty, she’s the RELIEF, substituting for the UMATILLA, warning mariners away from Umatilla Reef.

As you stare across the six miles separating you from the rest of the world, you sweep the shoreline with powerful 7x50 binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of bright colored cloth to remind you that there are girls out there somewhere. Some of your buddies, assigned to Ocean Station patrol duty, are out of sight of land for over a month at a time, but in a way they have it better. They can’t see land; they don’t have the option of visual references to the real world to tantalize their senses.

Your elbows rest uncomfortably on the white steel pipe railing, perhaps close to the very spot where a lookout on watch peers through the dense fog at 1:30 in the morning, June 15th, 1905. LV 83, then assigned to Blunt’s Reef, lies quietly at anchor, the only disturbance, the gentle lapping of wavelets along the hull, punctuated by the periodic warning from the fog signal. Suddenly he hears human cries through the cold wet darkness. Ghosting out of the fog a lifeboat pulls alongside the lightship. He rings the emergency bell, summoning the crew on deck.

Men, women and children clamber up the ladder, cold, frightened and bewildered, survivors of the passenger liner BEAR, aground near Cape Mendocino. Another, then another lifeboat appears out of the fog. Bunks are hastily made up, quarters straightened and hot coffee put on the galley range. Soon, 155 survivors crowd the small vessel originally designed for a dozen crew members.

Nine lifeboats trail astern and Captain Henry Pierotti calls for assistance. At 3:00 a.m. the Revenue Cutter Service (previous name of the Coast Guard) motor lifeboat LIBERATOR arrives just as the tug RELIEF comes along side with the last of the survivors. Eventually, wireless contact with the steamer GRACE DOLLAR brings her alongside, and at 7:40 a.m. the passengers transfer to the steamer. By 8:45 normal lightship duties resume.


You direct your attention to the 4-horned diaphone above your head. Originally number 83 came equipped with a 12-inch steam chime whistle, along with the hand operated, 1,000-pound bell on the foredeck. In 1932 the original horn was converted to a steam diaphragm horn, then in 1934 to the present compressed air diaphone. Below decks a huge tank supplies the air for the bellowing beast, whose sound has been known to shatter nearby windows. You’re glad fog hasn’t been a problem lately. The continuing periodic blast can really get on the nerves.

Whitecaps march by in endless parade, heading for the beach. The ship rolls slightly today, nothing like the storm a few weeks ago. Ocean station vessels pitch and roll also, but they more or less give with the elements. Your home, tethered by a huge mushroom anchor buried under tons of mud, snubs her bow now and then, jerking her downward as the bow rises. Even with the long scope of anchor chain, the effect is maddening. At least it wasn’t like the storm in January, 1915, where winds clocked at 110 miles an hour dragged her two miles off station. On the east coast, hurricanes toy with lightships, tossing them around like corks. In Hurricane Edna another lightship’s mighty ground tackle broke under the surge of waves driven to 70-foot heights by 110-mile an hour winds. With the bridge smashed in and the shoals close by, the crew saved the ship by rigging an emergency anchor.

You walk forward, portside, and enter the white deckhouse. Here you either turn left, climb a few steps to the wheelhouse, turn right and enter the captain’s cabin, or descend to the mess deck. Hanging over the long table a housed candle sways with the roll, a vestige of the original "smoking lamp." When smoking was permitted, the candle burned and seamen could light up with its flames. During dangerous operations the candle was extinguished and smoking prohibited. Today the term lives, although the candles have gone the way of buggy whips.

You walk aft and peek down at the 2-cylinder, 325-horsepower steam engine connected to the nearly eight-foot propeller. No lightships were self-propelled, except by sail until 1891. They were towed to and from station, and had to wait for a tow if blown off their assigned location. The engine is rarely used, only traveling to and from station, or to return to station after being blown off by a severe storm. Forward of the engine are the two cylindrical boilers, nine feet in diameter, 16 feet long. Originally she burned coal and carried 150 tons. Now converted to oil, she also has auxiliary diesel power. In 1930 electric lights replaced the original whale oil lamps.

Further aft, the wardroom with a skylight over the table, opens into several small cabins, these for the officers. At the very stern, a library with many books offers relief to the sheer boredom of long days and nights.

Moving forward past the engine room spaces, you pass the mess deck and enter the forward compartment with its huge windlass and anchor chain. Starboard, the head offers relief for seasickness, or normal usage. Crew’s quarters lie just aft, and forward of the pantry/galley. It’s tight, but youth can acclimate to most anything if necessary.

Topside, aft of the stack and diaphone sits another deckhouse, this one the radio room. In 1918 she was equipped with a radio, then in 1922, a radiobeacon transmitting a low frequency signal for homing. Today, loran, VHF, and radar all add safety and precision. The air diaphone, synchronized with the radiobeacon signal, gives mariners distance measurements. Knowing the propagation rates of both radio signals and sound, the difference, calculated, determines distance quite accurately.

Dusk, then nightfall and lights begin twinkling on along the coast. You look wistfully across the dark waters. Atop the mast the powerful light cuts through the darkness. Back in the good old days, the original oil lamps were winched to the trucks of her two masts at dusk, from houses built around the base of each mast. How much easier it is now, to simply throw a light switch. In the radio room, the radio beacon continues its round the clock transmission and tonight, thankfully, the diaphone is quiet.

Life aboard is not particularly hard, it’s the monotony and isolation that wears on you. Personnel with short tempers, personality problems and the like, are not usually assigned to this shut-in world. Even you, with your easygoing temperament, can get testy after a few weeks of endless bobbing and swaying.

During the years when the Lighthouse Service ran the ships, one 19th-century crewman asked to return to service quickly declined. He declared, "If it weren’t for the disgrace it would bring on my family I’d rather go to state prison."

After breakfast you turn to. Keeping ahead of rust in salt air is a never-ending job. The metal scraper and heavy buckets of red lead are all wonderful incentives for moving up to petty officer. Otherwise, it’s read, write letters or work on hobbies. Some lightship crew wove rattan baskets, selling them when they got back to shore.

The days turn into weeks, the rolling and pitching your constant companions. And then the day the UMATILLA appears on the horizon, relieving you of station. Your huge mushroom anchor follows link after link of chain, finally breaking the surface, mud dripping, and snugs up to the hawse. The steam engine below chuffs, the screw churns up white water, and you are shoreward bound. You finish writing up your request for Radioman school and hand it to the old man.

Today the lightships have been retired. Some are now floating museums or restaurants, others live out their lives working in various capacities. Number 83, the RELIEF lies alongside the Coast Guard dock in Seattle’s ship canal, just east of the locks. During her 56 years of continuous lightship duty she was stationed at Blunt’s Reef, San Francisco, Columbia River Bar, Umatilla Reef, Swiftsure Bank, finally becoming the relief vessel. During World War II she joined the Navy. Painted gray, she had guns installed on her foredeck, bridge and stern and enlarged her crew to 40. She patrolled marine traffic in the harbor area with her magnificent speed of nine knots.

Decommissioned July 18, 1960, Number 83 is now owned by Northwest Seaport as a floating museum. She’s one of three oldest surviving lightships and the oldest on the West Coast, retaining her original steam propulsion system.

When you’re in the neighborhood, come aboard and take the tour. Stand in the wheelhouse, pore over charts, look through the worn rubber hood at the radar, peek into the tiny cabins, then let your imagination add the never ending pitch and roll, the horn, and the isolation.

Lightships may be a vanished breed, but if old number 83 could talk, what tales she could tell. . . .


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