BY DENE BEBBINGTON (ENGLAND)
TITLE IMAGE: LIGHTSHIP NANTUCKET (LV-112) WHICH SERVED FROM 1936 TO 1983 IS NOW A FLOATING MUSEUM IN BOSTON HARBOUR. [ARNOLD REINHOLD]
Shoals are one of many hazards to have claimed ships throughout history. These banks and bars of sand or gravel under, or just above, the water’s surface may be spotted and avoided in daylight, but at night were a mariner’s nightmare. Being unsuitable to build a lighthouse on, another solution was needed to warn shipping of their location.
Like many innovative ideas lightships initially faced scepticism, if only because of competing financial interests from private lighthouse owners and Trinity House – the official authority for navigation aids in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.
Perhaps inevitably, when Captain Robert Hamblin proposed a manned lightship for Nore Bank in the Thames Estuary Trinity House opposed it, partly on spurious grounds. Hamblin had been a barber before becoming Master of a coastal trade vessel and gave them an excuse for mockery, which didn’t stand the test of time . A response from Trinity House that began , “The patent and description were much wondered and laughed at, nor could those who were not in the project guess at first what was aimed at.”
Hamblin’s idea was sound since trade and commerce was slowed down by ships having to anchor during darkness before risking entry to the estuary. With permission and funding eventually in place, July 1731 saw the Nore lightship put on station.
The first lightships were converted from existing vessels and typically had a single mast with two lanterns powered by candles hung from the yard arm. The lanterns could be lowered for cleaning and maintenance.
By the 19th century the design of purpose – built lightships evolved from wooden vessels to wood clad over an iron frame which could better withstand the strain inflicted by wind and sea on the moored ships. Also, the hull’s shape was changed to reduce rolling and the effect of waves hitting the sides.
UNITED STATES COAST GUARD LIGHTSHIP WLV 189 WHICH OPERATED AT FOUR STATIONS FROM 1947 TO 1975, STARTING WITH THE DIAMOND SHOAL”.[UNITED STATES COAST GUARD]
Secure mooring was even more important for later vessels which had no sail or engine. If they drifted off station – an event which could and did happen – they had to be towed back. Along with changes to the hull, stronger anchor cables made from iron chains replaced hemp ropes, and mushroom anchors improved the reliability of moorings. Occasionally severe weather could still force a vessel off station if the cable broke or the anchor dragged.
In the early 1900s iron and steel construction of new lightships became the norm. Later lightships were moored from the bow which allowed the vessel to reorient itself with changing tide and sea conditions.Lanterns illuminated by candles or other burners had to remain upright as the vessel continually rolled. To compensate for this movement the lights were mounted on a gimbal with ball bearings for easy rotation. As with lighthouses, better lighting technology also made its way onto lightships. Later designs had the lantern mounted on a steel mast accessed via a ladder.
DRAWING OF A 19TH CENTURY LIGHTSHIP MOORED AT THE SEVEN STONES REEF 15 MILES FROM LAND’S END, CORNWALL.[BRITISH LIBRARY]
Since a light alone is insufficient as a navigation aid, other vessels needed to know which station the light was on. To identify itself each lightship had its own combination of light colour and fl ashing pattern, though some were fixed. Before the introduction of electric lights, the lamplighter had a key role in keeping lanterns in good working order by maintaining the burners and cleaning the metal, reflectors and glass. Some were in a housing large enough to be entered from inside which gave him protection from the weather.
BUILT IN 1959, LIGHTSHIP LV23 ORIGINALLY SERVED AT MERSEY BAR BEFORE BEING SOLD TO TRINITY HOUSE. [RUSSELL HARRY LEE]
When fog rendered the lights ineffective an audible warning was given instead. Originally bells, then gongs or guns were employed. Manually pumped reed horns took over before being replaced by electric fog horns later in the 20th century, with a manual horn kept as a backup in case of power outage.
The introduction of wireless technology led to further safety at sea measures. A wireless signal from a lightship could be picked up by passing vessels and used to calculate their position relative to the station.
Other standards included Trinity House lightships being recognisable by their red hull and the station name painted in big white letters. They were numbered with the prefix LV, but the name could change if they were moved to a new station. Over in the United States (US) early lightships had no standard colouring which was usually chosen to provide contrast to the surroundings or other vessels. Later, in 1940, the US Coast Guard opted for a red hull, white lettering and a white superstructure.
Unfortunately, tragedies were inevitable, either from the lightship with no propulsion losing its mooring and being washed onto a shoal or by being run down by another vessel, though not always in fog when danger of a collision was greatest. Fog caused the coaster Abbot to run into LV70 at the Morecambe station in 1903, but she stayed afloat long enough for all on board to get into a boat and be picked up by the Abbot. Those on board LV90 at South Goodwin in 1954 were not as lucky during a violent storm of force ten and eleven winds when her cable broke. She quickly drifted and foundered on sands. Laying on her starboard side, most of the crew were trapped. Only one managed to escape the hull , and unable to help crewmates survived on the lantern rigging until rescuers arrived.
Adding to the normal risks, wartime presented new challenges to lightships and their crews. Normal operation was interrupted in the two world wars to avoid aiding enemy ships. While some were taken out of service, others remained on station with their names painted out and only operated their lights at certain times or at a reduced brightness.
They also risked being holed by mines or attacked by enemy aircraft since the Germans rightly suspected them of monitoring their movements. During the second world war LV80, on the Seven Stones station 15 miles off Land’s End, Cornwall, had to be replaced by a light buoy due to attacks by the Luftwaffe making it too dangerous for a manned ship.
LIGHTSHIP LV95 WAS BUILT IN 1939 AND STAYED IN SERVICE UNTIL 2003. NOW MOORED AT TRINITY BUOY WHARF SHE WAS CONVERTED TO A MUSIC RECORDING STUDIO”.