By Jim Gill
The primary and
singularly most important goal of the lightship seemed rather simple. Attain
the most accurate position consistent with that shown on the chart and through
careful daily observation, remain there. Once that situation is in hand, the
other basic services provided by the lightship can begin. The light flashes, the
fog signal sounds and the radio beacon sends itís signal. These services were
all predicated with the ship being where it was supposed to be, on station. If
for some reason the ship is no longer in that exact location, the services are
So what could be
easier? Just take the ship out to the station, take a few sextant angles, drop
the anchor and flip a few switches. Although this might have on rare occasion
been true, there was one governing factor that many times turned the whole
situation into a nightmare- the weather. The force of the wind, the state of the
sea, the visibility and the ambient air temperature all at once or in various
combinations were frequently in command.
Consider the fact that
lightship stations were not established with any consideration for the safety
and welfare of the lightship. Far from it. Most stations were located in exposed
and dangerous locations with the purpose of warning shipping to stand clear.
Rock strewn ship-killing reefs, isolated dangers, perilous shoals were all part
of the equation and always in desolate and remote areas. These were places where
the wind howled incessantly and the sea was rarely less than tumultuous.
The normal ship,
engaged in the pursuit of itís designated purpose or trade, will do so with a
watchful eye on the weather. They will endure the hardships of harsh weather
conditions and continue on their mission Ė up to a point. Beyond that, the
wise shipmaster will seek shelter, turn seaward, remain in port or maneuver the
ship in whatever manner necessary to avoid damage or loss.
The lightship too will
keep a watchful eye on the weather, but there is one very large difference.
The lightship was unable to enjoy any of the above choices. When sea
conditions became horrendous, even life threatening, it became more important
than ever to hold the station and keep the services intact. The active vessels
caught unawares in the tempest needed those services for their own safety and
guidance. So the lightship, no matter how grim the outlook, stuck it out.
It is of no surprise
then to find the history of lightships laden with accounts of parted moorings,
dragging anchor for miles, and frequent reports of damage. Vents stove in, boats
carried away, portlights smashed, injury to crew. It gets worse. The ship cannot
hold up against the force of the wind and sea and is driven aground. Severe
damage has resulted and several lightships foundered due loss of hull integrity.
One was literally torn apart and another crushed in an ice jam.
There was one other
peril, however, that overshadowed even the weather. It was not a natural hazard
but one that was man-made. Although Coast Pilots, Light Lists and other maritime
publications clearly warned against it, homing in on a lightship was a common
practice. It began when the very first lightship took station in the early
1800ís and continued until the last lightship was withdrawn from station in
1983. In the early days, collisions with lightships were so common it seemed the
rule rather than the exception .
These collisions ranged from minor bumps and scrapes to the horrifying shriek of mangled steel as the lightship was ripped apart or cut in two by a large fast-moving ship.
The attendant injury and loss of life was appalling. After 1983 there were no more lightships out there to run over and the ships were left without a target of choice.
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