Shedding Light on Lightships

Lightship 613

This article originally appeared in the January 22 issue of the Wareham Courier.  

When the light on top of Lightship 613 was turned on all the way, it was said that planes cruising in at 10,000 feet coming from New York or Bermuda could see it. Lightship 613 was built in 1951, but it only stood watch briefly on the Nantucket shoals while the Coast Guard finished testing the large navigational buoy on site.

It was the last lightship built by the United States government at the tail end of an era that began in the middle of the 1800s as trade and traffic increased along the coast of the United States. Doug Bingham, a founding member of the American Lighthouse Foundation, shared the story of these ships with the Wareham Historical Society Monday evening.

“No two lightships were exactly alike,” he said.

In that way, they were a lot like the lighthouses that dotted the American coastline. Lightships could vary from 60 to 124 feet from stem to stern, with different configurations of masts, lights and smokestacks jutting out from the deck.

Lightships 612 and 613, which were built within a year of one another and were both stationed off Nantucket had their own variations.

Lightship 613, now sitting along a dock near Main Street in Wareham, was one of the only American lightships to adopt an English design of mounting the light on top of a tripod rather than a simple mast. The unique style of each lightship had a similar motivation to the unique markers on a lighthouse.

Sailors could figure out where they were by looking at the name of the ship (sometimes painted in large letters on the side), the ship’s paint job, its configuration of masts or its lights and bells. The nature of the water also helped to keep each lightship unique.

The ships were built to be rugged, but lightships were out at sea for long periods of time in seas that were rough even during the best weather. It wasn’t uncommon for lightships to be beaten by the ocean and sent back for repairs.

One lightship in the early 1900s even lost its stern to rot. The ship was only saved because of its watertight doors.

“Every time the ships would come out of the yard, they would not look the same,” Bingham said.

Life aboard a lightship wasn’t easy. The quarters were often cramped, and the work could be hours of boredom punctuated by moments of absolute terror as a large ship passed by a little too closely for comfort. In their history, many lightships were struck by other vessels, sending many sailors to the bottom of the ocean.

If the conditions weren’t unbearable enough, the company could often make some sailors even more uncomfortable. For a long time, white-collar criminals were often sentenced to serve aboard lightships rather than sit in jail. Six or sixteen miles of rough, cold seas were just as effective a barrier as iron bars. Sometimes life could be good.

One group of enterprising sailors traded hot coffee and warm food to passing fisherman in exchange for mail and gifts from dry land. It worked well until the Coast Guard finally put a stop to the trade.

“Those guys lived the high life when the weather was good,” Bingham said.

Life aboard the ships could also go from bad to worse. During World War II, many lightships were repurposed as examination ships to watch over the harbors and channels. That meant mounting some with guns and putting even more sailors on board, in some cases ballooning crews from 14 to more than 100.

One particularly harrowing story comes from the winter of 1918, when the waters from Newfoundland to the Chesapeake Bay froze. Many lightships became locked in solid ice and the Cross Rip 6, stationed in Nantucket Sound, began to drift out to sea with its crew still aboard.

Bingham and others spent more than two years trying to confirm an old Cape Cod legend that crewman Henry Joy walked across seven miles of ice to Nantucket to ask for permission to abandon ship; he was refused and sent back to die at sea. The ship was last seen drifting out past the Great Point Light, and an intensive search could not find the vessel or any of its crew. Bingham and his fellow researchers could find no evidence of Joy’s walk, only holes in the apocryphal tale. Bingham, however, almost never fails to find a descendant of the lost crew when he visits historical societies to talk about his love of lightships, and it seems the story lives on strong.

Now lightships are mostly museum or novelty pieces, replaced by automated buoys and lighthouses constructed with more advanced techniques than were available when lightships were commonly used. The automated buoys could test ocean conditions, and monitor the weather and relay information back to researchers 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. For Bingham, cataloguing the history of these ships has been a labor of love, and an important mission to keep that information alive.

“I think most people under 23 have never even heard of lightships,” he said.