Lightship vs Lighthouse
was recently asked the question, “why is it that lighthouses get so much
attention and lightships do not.” We see abundant funding easily obtained for
lighthouse restoration and volunteer groups for care-taking abound. If a popular
lighthouse is threatened with demolition or is allowed to deteriorate, there is
a public outcry.
enjoy no such comforts. There are only seven of these ships left that stand any
chance of survival and even so their future remains tenuous. Funding is either
non-existent or miserly at best and nobody seems to care.
an ex-lightship sailor I quickly realized that such a question deserves some
hard and realistic answers. To begin with, I think it is a matter of one being
great in number with high visibility and the other being pitifully few and all
but invisible. Then too, there were considerable differences of environment in
which the two existed. For example; lighthouses were mostly located in a place
of high visibility both from seaward and the surrounding countryside. The
general public could easily view most of them and a few were even available to
were generally over the horizon somewhere and out of sight. The lighthouse
setting was often majestic, sometimes stunning. It was a permanent location.
lightship setting was a lonely, barren stretch of often-turbulent water.
Lighthouses are picturesque and romantic.
(the old ones anyway) were often ugly, sinister and least of all, romantic.
Lighthouses are to be found everywhere. Many are still operational. Except for
an obscure seven, lightships are long gone.
knows what a lighthouse is; few have heard of lightships, and their numbers
diminish as the years go by. The lightship probably earned a bad reputation, and
perhaps justifiably. Serving in a lightship was never a bed of roses and over
the years the poor ambiance evolved into a stigma. Consider the following:
a lighthouse, the fog signal and attendant compressors were usually a distance
removed from the living quarters. On a lightship the fog signal was just above
the living quarters and the compressors just below it. The blast lifted you
right out of your bunk followed by the jackhammer concussions of the compressor.
If poor visibility prevailed, this bedlam could go on for days.
most lighthouses you could walk around, make a phone call, have visitors, and,
in some cases, drive uptown. You could plant a garden, grow roses, keep a cat or
a dog or go for a hike. In a lightship you were totally isolated, cooped up in a
steel box like an animal or a prisoner in solitary confinement
lighthouse was usually on terra firma, solid and steady, calm and serene. A gale
force wind could buffet the buildings and the sea could rage but all remained
firm. On a lightship you spent a lot of time holding on for dear life. The seas
were sometimes breaking clear over the ship and the motion could be violent.
Most of the guys were puking their guts out into a bucket—the ones not
afflicted were starving because the galley is shut down. Pots and pans are flung
off the galley range even if fitted with safety rails. Sleep often impossible
due to the violent motion, the roar of gale force winds and the bellow of the
fog signal every thirty seconds or so.
lighthouses were ever run over by a steamship, crushed by ice, torn apart by
raging seas or ripped from their moorings and cast ashore. The toll of death and
injury in lightship disasters is appalling. Lighthouses, too, were occasionally
victims. The total destruction of Scotch Cap Light Station by a gigantic Tsunami
is a case in point. Six men perished, torn to shreds by the killer wave. The
comparison dwindles however when matched against the many lives lost in
lightships due to collisions, storms and other misfortunes.
factors weighed heavily in comparing the two, and those differences continued
even after they were withdrawn from active service. Mainly these were financial
considerations and the lightship was by far the loser.
lighthouse might require repairs but never had to proceed to a shipyard to
accomplish them. Very often a coat of ordinary paint did the job. There was no
requirement to “stay afloat” to “stay alive.”
any seagoing vessel, the lightship was “fair game” for the expensive whims
of the shipyards. In modern times, dry-docking and other repairs might run to
$100 thousand to $200 thousand dollars per year. Expensive anti-corrosive and
anti-fouling paints were necessary to protect the hull below the waterline.
was a huge difference in crew requirements. The average lighthouse was manned by
three men. There were exceptions of course. The Farallon Light Station, 29 miles
off the California coast, once boasted a crew of ten complete with family
quarters. Needless to say, it was one of the first to be automated and the
personnel assigned elsewhere.
lightship on the other hand usually carried a crew of 12 to 19 people. The
difference in payroll and logistics is obvious.
duty from its very inception was a harsh, cruel way of life. Assignment to a
lightship was shunned almost as a prison sentence. That stigma haunted the
lightship community to its very end, although by the late 1930’s conditions
had improved considerably.
served as CO of Lightship 612 in 1960 and can attest that it was one of my
better assignments. The stigma, however, remained. Many Coasties ran for cover
when the word “lightship” was mentioned. Regardless of the negative aspects
of the lightship, there are many ardent defenders and protectors holding forth
for lightships. Whether it because of pride in the service or a brotherhood of
misery is hard to tell.
there you have it. Comparing a lighthouse to a lightship is like comparing an
apple with an old tennis shoe. There is no intent here to denigrate the
lighthouse, in fact quite the opposite, lighthouses are almost always beautiful
and in many cases national treasures. Their preservation is vital to our
maritime heritage. Although the foregoing is also true of lightships, the future
of the remaining few appears bleak.
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