LOST ON VOYAGES 

TO  NOWHERE

By W.E. Ehrman

An article about the loss of several lightships……

From “We’ve Been There” by Esther Stormer ©1992 Reprinted by Permission.

In 1820, almost a century after the British came up with the idea, the United States began using lightships to mark the approaches to important harbors and to guide the mariners past offshore shoals where it was impractical to erect fixed aids to navigation. At their peak more than 50 of the floating lighthouses were stationed along the east and west coasts of the United States and in three of the great lakes. By 1939 when the Bureau of Lighthouses merged with the United States Coast Guard. Only 30 lightships remained and since then, all, except one, the lightship guarding Nantucket Shoals, have been replaced by “Texas Tower” type off shore light platforms or large navigational buoys (LNB’s) at a considerable savings in manpower and construction/maintenance costs.

Until recently, setting a buoy on Nantucket Shoals was deemed almost impossible due to the rotary currents in the area which would cause the buoy to spin continuously. But on August 10, 1982, LNB equipped with a larger mooring chain and special swivels anchored a few miles from the lightship station. If the LNB survives and provides satisfactory service over a period of two years or so, it will replace the lightship and permit it to sail off into the pages of history as the last of it’s kind.

Ed Note: Since this article was written, the lightship guarding Nantucket Shoals has been permanently discontinued.  

Lightship duty was, and until the Nantucket is replaced, and still is a hazardous profession. In foggy weather lightships were sitting ducks for oncoming vessels homing in on their fog signals and radio beacons, and changing course only at the last moment. In the process, a number of lightships have been rammed and sunk. Others have been severely damaged and all of them have had instances of hair raising near misses. Although Nantucket is equipped with radar and other electronic safeguards, the threat of collision still exists. A recent one-way radio conversation between Nantucket and an unidentified merchant ship is a case in point.

While the cutter Duane was taking a disabled fishing vessel in tow, Duane’s Officer of the Deck heard the following voice conversation on Channel 16, the ship to ship emergency distress frequency, “Vessel 1.6 miles from Nantucket Lightship; request that you change course. You are on a collision course with the lightship.”

After a period of silence, Nantucket came on the air again, “Vessel 0.6 miles from Nantucket Lightship; you are directed to immediately change course!!!!! You are going to collide with us!!!” In the background the Duane’s OOD heard the lighships collision alarm and could imagine the turmoil as the lightship’s crew scrambled to their stations. Suddenly a faint voice was heard evidently shouting across the lightship’s bridge, at some distance from the microphone, “Skipper, I think I see someone on the bridge (of the merchant vessel.) The all was silent. No “Mayday.”

Duane’s report of the incident concluded with the assumption that ….. “on the merchie the “iron mike” was taken in hand and the rudders put hard over.

Lightship No. 117, occupying Nantucket Shoals Station in dense fog on 15 May 1934 was not as fortunate. Not being equipped with electronic devices to warn her that S.S. Olympic was on a collision course, Lightship No. 117 lost seven crew members when the huge liner rammed and sunk her.

Fog is one of the hazards lightshipmen face. When hurricanes are in the offing and other vessels are free to seek shelter or take evasive action, lightships are duty bound to remain on station and “keep the lights burning.” Despite their huge mushroom type mooring anchors, heavy spare anchors, and on later models equipped with propulsion machinery, the use of their engines, a considerable number of storm bound lightships have been dragged off station and have suffered moderate to severe damage as a result. In the more extreme cases, several lightships including Five Fathom Lightship No. 37 in 1893, the Buffalo Lightship, No. 82 in 1913, Cross Rip Lightship No. 6 in 1918, and Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 73 in 1944 foundered on or near their stations with heavy loss of life.

Survivors from Five Fathom, which took four men to the bottom with her, told of how their ship foundered after an army of mountainous waves marched across her bulwarks, tore off her ventilators and hatch covers, and filled her with water the the resulting deck openings.

There were no survivors when Buffalo foundered during the Great Storm that swept across Lake Erie in November 1913, but a message from her dead Captain to his wife tells it all. Scrawled on a board that washed ashore a few days after the disaster, the message read, “Goodbye Nellie, ship is breking up fast …. Williams.”

Cross Rip left no messages or survivors when she vanished on 5 February 1918. Observers on the shore reported seeing the helpless lightship torn loose from her 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, her fate, and that of her six-man crew remained a mystery for 15 years. In July 1933, a government dredge working in the Vineyard Sound area brought up splintered pieces of oak planking and ribs and a section of a windlass believed to be from the lost lightship. If the recovered material was from the lightship, there is reason to believe the Cross Rip was crushed in the massive ice field and sank before her crew could launch a boat into the ice that was grinding along her sides.

All hands were lost when the Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 73 foundered during a 1944 hurricane and although her storm battered wreck was located and explored by divers a few weeks after she foundered and again twenty years later, the actual cause of the sinking of the veteran lightship remains somewhat of a mystery. This account of the incident and the rather intriguing aftermath is dedicated to her crew who remained at their post until the end.

 

Lightship No. 73 was 123 feet long, displaced 693 tons and was powered by a 400 horsepower steam engine. She was built in 1901 with an iron hull, masts, and deckhouses, had wooden decks and bulkheads, and little or no water tight integrity. It was not until after the Nantucket Lightship No. 117 was rammed and sunk in 1934 that the new model lightships were constructed with three watertight compartments.

On September 14, 1944, Lightship No. 73 was guarding Sow and Pigs reef off the tip of Cuttyhunk Island, Massachsetts in company with Lightship No. 83 which was occupying Hen and Chickens shoal some four miles to the northwest. The lightships greeted the dawn on that fateful day with hurricane flags flying to warn shipping of an approaching tropical hurricane while their crews calmly went about their duties, secure in the knowledge that both lightships had weathered numerous hurricanes in the past. They might have had second thoughts, however, had they known this particular hurricane was akiller storm which earlier in the day had been responsible for the foundering of a Navy Destroyer leader and two 125 foot Coast Guard Cutters off the coast of North Carolina.

Lightship No 73’s crew consisted of her Skipper, BOSN Edgar Sevigny and eleven crewmen, five of whom were due to be relieved the following day by the lightship’s Executive Officer, Chief Boatswains Mate Arthur F. Love and four crewmen who were ashore on compensatory leave. Had it not been for an earlier two day storm in the Buzzard’s Bay area which delayed their return to the lightship, Chief Love and his party would have been back on board the day before the hurricane and their lives rather then those of the men they were scheduled to relieve on the 15th would have been in jeopardy.

Gale force winds in advance of the hurricane reached the Buzzard’s Bay area at about 1700 and the accompanying rain squalls reduced visibility to near zero. The beacons aboard both lightships began to flash their individual patterns light pattern into the gloom night air and the raucous sound of their fog signals echoed across the windswept waters. The wind continued to increase until about midnight when the eye of the storm passed over Providence, Rhode Island and moved onward in a northeastly direction. A short time later, the hurricane curved again and roared back out to sea across the turbulent waters of Buzzards Bay and in passing, the wind shifted to the southeast and peaked to over 100 knots.

Since all hands went down with the ship, her logbook was never recovered and her radio-telephone was strangely silent throughout her ordeal, nothing is known about conditions on board lightship No. 73 during the height of the storm. It was a different story aboard Lightship No. 86 which was being dragged relentlessly in a northwesterly direction. At about 0130 on September 15, her watch sighted a series of red and white flares streaking across the cloud filled skies in the general direction of Lightship No. 73’s general direction. Some residents of Westport, Massachusetts observed similar flares, but were prevented by the fury of the storm from approaching the beach area to try to identify the source. After the storm had abated somewhat, they struggled down to the beach, scanned the murky horizon with their glasses and discovered that the lightship guarding Sow and Pigs Reef had vanished from her station.

The Coast Guard launched an immediate air and sea search hoping that, as happened in the past, the errant lightship had torn loose from her moorings and had sought shelter in some secluded cove or had headed out to sea to ride out the storm. Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions proved to be correct. On September 16th after the battered remains of Lightship No. 73’s dory washed ashore on Cuttyhunk Island and the bodies of two of her missing crewmen were recovered from the surf, a team of Navy divers began searching the bottom in the vicinity of the lightship’s station.

On September 22nd the sunken wreck of the missing lightship was located in 70 feet of water about 1.5 miles northwest of her station, but the divers found no traces of her missing crewmen either in the wreck or in the surrounding area.

Appearing before a Coast Guard Board of Inquiry, the divers testified that the wreck was resting on the bottom in a near vertical position with her stack and both masts snapped off flush with the deck and her main anchor chain heading out of it’s hawsepipe for a short distance until it disappeared beneath the sand. Her spare mushroom anchor was resting on the bottom with very little slack in it’s chain indicating that it had been dropped or fallen at a time when the stricken lightship was directly over her final resting place. The limited underwater visibility prevented the divers from distinguishing the name or number painted on the lightship’s sides but they were able to distinguish the letters, “USLHE” and the numerals, “1981” inscribed on her huge fog bell. The latter reading had obviously been in error because the lightship had been built in 1901. However the wreck was positively identified by the ship’s Executive Officer, Chief Love, who testified that the ornate fog bell lanyard brought up by one of the divers was the handiwork of Coxswain Harold W. Flagg, another off-duty member of the lightship’s crew.

The fact that Lightship No. 73 had lost her stack and both masts led the Board of Inquiry to believe that, like Five Fathom Lightship No. 37, she had foundered as a result of openings through the deck. LCDR Roy W. Whittemore, a former Commanding Officer of the lightship, vetoed the idea. While not questioning the fact that wave damage was responsible for the loss of the top hamper, the former Skipper expressed the opinon that the damage must have occurred after the vessel began to found and was riding lower in the water than usual, since her bulwarks were higher than those of most other lightships. When asked for his opinion as to the source(s) of leakage into the lightship’s hull which would have caused her to settle prior to sustaining the wave damages, Whittemore suggested that the water probably entered through a hole caused by the spare anchor crashing through the hull, or through an opening in her shell plating caused by the pounding of the seas, or through the cargo ports in the hull if the doors had been carried away.

Unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the lightship’s sinking, the Board of Inquiry gave, as it’s opinion, “The foundering of Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 73 was caused by a leak through the hull at some undetermined point” and recommended that, “The Lightship be strickened from the Record of Public Property.” Lightship No. 73 ended her gallant 43-year career on that final note marked only by a wreck symbol on the chart that eventually proved to be wide of it’s mark.

The board may have been inconclusive in it’s findings, but most of the local boatmen firmly believed that “Old Sow and Pigs” as they fondly called her had been the victim of a fractured hawse pipe which permitted her unfettered anchor chain to saw through her tender bowplates, leaving a gaping hole for the influx of sufficient water to cause her to founder.

Most of the nation’s newspapers were to preoccupied with the war news of the day to devote any space to the loss of the Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 73., but the New Bedford Standard-Times carried daily accounts of the tragedy and it’s aftermath. In it’s September 20, 1944 edition, it published the following eulogy to the lost lightshipmen……..

LIGHTSHIP HEROES

Measured by the loss of life, the sinking of the Vineyard Sound Lightship with all it’s officer and crew …. Twelve men all told …stands as the worst single disaster caused by the hurricane.

The precise circumstances under which these members of the Coast Guard lost their lives can only be conjectured. All that is known is the vessel, rugged as she was, foundered in the storm.

Other shipping, warned several days in advance, was free to seek shelter. Lightships, anchored at their stations, are supposed to stay put and take whatever comes. They are built to withstand severe storms, but there is tragic proof that Vineyard Sound could not survive it. The men who died did so at their post, in the performance of their duty, helpless against what faced them. That takes courage of a rare sort. These men had it ……..

Commander W. E. Ehrman is a retired Coast Guard Officer

                            

 

           Return to Coast Guard Stories