LOST ON VOYAGES
article about the loss of several lightships……
“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Nantucket Shoals, have been replaced by “Texas Tower” type off shore light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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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……..
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.
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.
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
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