Digest>Archives> July 2002

On Station: The Red Target

By Jim Gill


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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 its 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 terminated.

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 nightmar— 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 its 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 - 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 1800’s 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.

This story appeared in the July 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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