The Red Cutter 

By Jim Gill


The one thing all of us big white cutter guys (black hull guys too) feared was getting sent to a lightship. A set of orders to a “Red One” could inspire a number of clever countermeasures. Immediate request for retirement, that long postponed knee operation, a plea of insanity, a family hardship, or whatever. A lightship? Forget it!

I managed to survive 18 years in the USCG without the beckon of the red plague and had concluded that I was in the safe zone. So it was with much surprise, great trepidation and terrifying dismay I learned that a set of orders had arrived and I was to proceed and report. Yes, to a Lightship. What could I do? I had two years to go for retirement, my knees were both OK and insanity was a way of life. So I went peacefully but not without reservations.

I spent the next three years as CO WLV-612 otherwise known as San Francisco Lightship. At the end of that period I retired from the USCG but it wasn’t because of the lightship. I had learned a few things. Except for being kept awake by the fog horn and having to weather an occasional storm, lightship sailors lived better than white cutter sailors. With the compensatory leave setup you got more time off. The living quarters were more comfortable and with the increased ration allowance, the food was better.

Lightship crews were also more tightly knit, most of them having learned early in the game the many benefits over other type of Coast Guard service. This is not to say that it was all fun and games. When a killer storm was on the way you didn’t run for cover. You stayed there and toughed it out. The greatest hazard was being run down (as many lightships were) by an errant steamship. The worst thing that could happen was a missed shore rotation, the weather being too severe for the tender to make it out to station with the relief crew. Nevertheless, the good outweighed the bad and if I had to do it all over again, a lightship assignment would be most welcome.



Return to Coast Guard Stories