Remembering the Lightship Columbia

“The Coast Guard has signed the death warrant for the Columbia River lightship,” wrote Larry Barber at the end of 1979. Two congressmen had asked for “a reprieve,” he noted, after hearings in which fisherman and seafarers had voiced their objections. They urgently requested that the ship be “left on station alongside the new buoy until its anchor had been tested during a major storm.” But the death knell had been rung for the last lightship on the west coast.

Their concern was understandable, but progress marched on. Twenty years later, the lightship has slipped into the history of seafaring as surely as the windjammer. The last of the Columbias is on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, along with the device that replaced it–an ocean buoy. It is round, 40’ in diameter, and displays a light 42’ above the water.

Today, the Columbia is “guarded” by a similar buoy anchored six miles southwest of the river entrance, where it’s visible for 14 miles, compared to the 24-mile range of the ship’s light. A second buoy, operated by NOAA transmits wave and weather information to a shore station. Of course, because they are only a fraction of the weight of a lightship, the buoys are actually much easier to anchor than the ships ever were.

Lighthouses and lightships still have a fascination for many people–the symbol of the light guiding mariners into safe harbor is a powerful one. Part of the nostalgia over the lightship might also be that it had evolved for over a century, to withstand the worst winter storms, and finally emerged in the 1950s with a modern, functional design. Only twenty years later, it was swept away by the electronics revolution. The gallant history of lightships on the west coast lasted only a single lifetime, beginning on the Columbia River in 1892 and lasting just 87 years.

The lightship era lasted longer on the east coast, beginning in 1819, but still spanned less than two centuries. The idea had come from the ancient world, where Roman coast-guard galleys carried iron baskets at their mastheads in which a fire could be built. Manned by an armed crew, such vessels patrolled the Roman coasts to guide and protect incoming vessels by providing a beacon and to deter piracy by showing that a warship was at hand.

By the 18th century, however, maritime commerce had become a 24-hour-a-day undertaking, with ships ranging the entire globe. In 1731, Robert Hamblin, an Englishman, obtained permission from King George II to outfit what would become the first modern lightship. His primitive vessel was given the name Nore and took up its position a year later in the Thames estuary.

The Nore carried two ship’s lanterns, hung 12 feet apart from a cross arm high above the deck wherein burned flat wicks in oil. The Nore’s log lists several accounts of almost futile struggles to keep the lanterns lit during any appreciable strength of wind. Still, ships’ masters considered the lightship a godsend, and the idea quickly spread to every seafaring nation. At least six lightships were in use off England’s coasts by 1800.

The first U.S. contract was awarded in 1819 for a vessel of “70 tons burthen, copper-fastened, a cabin with four berths at least, spars, a capstan, belfry, yawl and davits…” Delivered in the summer of 1820, this first “light boat” was initially stationed off Willoughby Spit, Va., as an aid to Chesapeake Bay commerce. Storms and heavy seas, however, blasted this exposed position, and the vessel had to be shifted to a safer anchorage near Norfolk, VA.

Within a year, four more lightships appeared, marking dangerous shoals in the Chesapeake. America’s first true “outside” lightship, anchored in the open sea instead of in a bay or inlet, entered service off Sandy Hook, N.J. in 1823.The lightship proved as successful on this side of the Atlantic as it had on the other. During the period 1820-1983, 56 lightship stations were established. They were found in shallow water where fixed structures could not be placed, and in deep water many miles from shore. Being mobile, they could be readily repositioned to suit changing channels and trade.

The first lightships were exceedingly poor platforms–their full body, shoal draft and light displacement combining to cause undue rolling and violent pitching. In the 1830s, the skipper of one seagoing light was complaining that “her broad bluff bow is not calculated to resist the fury of the sea, which in some winter gales break against us and over us with almost impending fury.” Such rolling and pitching, in turn, resulted in frequent loss of moorings and breakage or damage to the lanterns. Another captain described his hull as being “similar to a barrel,” so that “she is constantly in motion, and when it is in any ways rough, she rolls and labors to such a degree as to heave the glass out of the lanterns, the beds out of the berths, tearing out the chain-plates, etc.”

With the advent of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, the situation was somewhat improved, but it was not until 1910 when the U.S. Lighthouse Service came into being that lightships found a place in a truly reliable, service-oriented organization. These high standards were carried onward by the U.S. Coast Guard in operating the lightships from 1939 until they were phased out in 1983. A visit to a lightship in the 1970s might have produced a much different report–on a calm day.

Scientific advances in hull design, the use of bilge keels, plus adoption of improved ballasting techniques produced more stable vessels. Not only did new designs reduce roll, but diesel engines also helped the captain keep his vessel headed into the wind for even greater stability. One change, though, was for the worse, at least as far as crew comfort was concerned. The bleat of modern fog-horns was so loud that anyone venturing on deck without ear protectors risked deafness.

But lightship duty was not for everyone!

A lightship was a sea-going vessel which spent most if its life anchored in the middle of a busy shipping lane, sending out light and radio signals that invited large ships to motor straight toward them, especially in poor visibility. The roll and pitch of the anchored ship would quickly induce seasickness in the unwary. In stormy weather, the ship snatched and jerked against the chain, exerting a strain that would destroy a normal ship. (If those congressmen had been forced to spend a tour of duty on a lightship, they might have avoided the embarrassment of that final appeal.)

The last Columbia Lightship was one of two of the last class of lightships built by the Coast Guard, and spent its entire 28 years of duty off the Columbia River. It was designated WAL-604,built by Rice Brothers in East Boothbay, Maine, equipped with an Atlas Imperial 8 cyl, direct reversing engine; 550 SHP ~ 750rpm;with a 7’dia propeller; and a max. speed of 10.7 knots. It carried two 15,000candle power lights, and two diaphones. Later, 24 locomotive headlights mounted in groups of 6 on each face of a 4-sided revolving lamp housing were added.

During its service, the lightship took aboard the crew of a sinking USCG 36 foot motor lifeboat in 1959; was blown off station during severe storm on Columbus Day 1962 and sideswiped by an unknown vessel; withdrawn for repair of collision damage in 1963. That was a more settled life than previous ships enjoyed.

In 1899, a major storm tore the light ship from its mooring and blew it ashore on the Peacock Spit. It sat on the sand unharmed for 16 months, thanks to the construction of four-inch pine planking bolted to heavy frames. A contractor finally managed to lift the 123’ ship onto rollers and haul it a quarter mile across the sand to Bakers Bay. It was repaired in Astoria and returned to service for another nine years. When it was replaced by a new steel design, the old lightship was sold to a Mexican firm and converted into a coastal steamer, and later to an Alaskan cannery tender.

The next Columbia lasted from 1908 to 1950. It was also built in the northeast and was delivered to the northwest via the Strait of Magellan, before the Panama Canal was opened. The 131’ long vintage craft had elaborate woodwork below decks, and towering masts with ratlines gave it the feel of a sailing ship. The two steam boilers were not converted from coal to oil until 1939. The main steam engine developed 425 HP and moved the ship at a maximum 8 knots.

According to a former lightshipman, Commander Jim Hadley, the crew of 10 men served 42 days on station and 21 days ashore. At the end of their six weeks at sea, they steamed into port to provision and pick up the new crew. He recalled one night in 1947, when the worst fear of lightship duty, being struck by a big ship, was almost realized.

The weather was clear and the seas were calm,” he wrote in 1979. “On entering the darkened pilothouse, I was astounded to see the bulk of an unladen Liberty Ship not more than 300 yards away. While awaiting the arrival of the bar pilot, the ship was drifting beam-on toward us. We immediately began sounding the four-blast danger warning while the bosun went forward to prepare to veer or slip the chain and the engine room stood by to get under way on auxiliary steam. For what seemed to be an eternity, those aboard the freighter showed no signs of life. Then, illuminated by the 13,000 candle power light, a startle face appeared on the freighter’s bridge. Commands were screamed in a foreign tongue so loudly that we could hear them clearly.”

As the big vessel drifted ever closer, the bosun veered all the remaining chain, giving us a few more yards of safety. I was about to order the chain to be slipped, as the Liberty’s propeller slowly began to turn and the ship moved slowly across our bow. We could directly up at the counter at the Greek lettering less than ten yards away, spray from the screw drenched us on the bridge. The ship’s log line dragged over our wire forestay, which cut it neatly and dropped the rotator on our deck.” Obviously the crew of the freighter had been negligent, but I later learned that my lookout had been reading while on watch. His punishment was a double tour of duty—considered a severe punishment indeed! (In the early years, four months was a standard tour of duty!)

Other lightship men were not so lucky: there were no survivors when Buffalo Lightship #82, located near Buffalo, N.Y., foundered in a gale that swept across Lake Erie in November, 1913, but a message from its dead captain to his wife told it all. Scrawled on a board that washed ashore a few days after the disaster, the message read: “Goodbye, Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. — Williams.” Cross Rip Lightship #6 left no survivors or messages when it vanished off Massachusetts with all hands Feb. 5,1918. Observers on shore reported seeing the helpless lightship torn loose from its moorings by a huge mass of windblown ice and carried away. The aged wooden vessel had no masts, sails or radio.

In December 1936, a 100-mph gale assailed the Swiftsure Lightship #113, anchored in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast. “The wind came shrieking and snarling out of the south,” its skipper recalled, “blowing a hurricane.” The sea, he declared “writhed and steamed like a bowl of boiling milk,” and the sky was “full of innumerable tiny particles of water torn from the crests of the waves until the air was so thick we could barely see half the length of our vessel.” Captain Eric Lindman flinched as waves broke over the pilothouse and the seas forced its way “through every fissure, no matter how small, even squirting in through the keyholes in the outer cabin doors.” Unlike its ill-fated sisters, however, Swiftsure survived the intense 12-hour battering.

Storms were certainly not a lightship’s only threat. In 1918 Off Cape Hatteras, N.C., a German submarine, responded to Diamond Shoals Lightship #71’s radio message warning off shipping by surfacing, and sank it with shellfire and, after allowing the 12-man crew to abandon ship. The lightship’s sacrifice was not in vain though, for more than 25 Allied ships had received its timely radio warning.

On May 15, 1934, the Nantucket Lightship #117 was riding at anchor in 192 feet of water off Nantucket Shoals. Its horn boomed into the fog to warn away the trans-Atlantic shipping that passed nearby. Unseen by sailors aboard the Nantucket was the 47,000-ton British luxury liner Olympic. Steering to the lightship’s radio beacon signal, the ocean liner intended to alter course at the last moment and pass close by the Nantucket. The liner, sister ship to the Titanic, suddenly materialized out of the fog; its towering bow hung poised like the blade of a guillotine, then severed the lightship in two. Seven of the Nantucket’s 11-man crew died in the collision.

In response to the tragedy, the British government replaced the Nantucket with a new lightship, one resembling a miniature battleship. Its hull was fashioned from armor plate, enclosing a maze of 43 watertight compartments. Atop its mast was a light visible from almost 50 miles. And, whenever the foghorn would sound, a radio transmitter would automatically broadcast a signal, enabling navigators of oncoming ships to calculate the distance to the lightship.

Official records contain 237 instances of lightships being blown adrift or dragged off-station in severe weather or moving ice with five total losses. There were 150 more serious collisions with lightships documented. Most of these involved sailing vessels, but long tows of multiple barges accounted for a sizeable number. Besides the Nantucket in 1934, four other lightships were sunk as the result of being rammed. Fog was a factor in many of these collisions, however most occurred under conditions of reasonably good visibility.

In 1939, when the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for aids to navigation, the number of stations had been reduced to 30. The final chapter of America’s lightship era came to a close with the decommissioning of the Nantucket in 1983.

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