The Story of Lightship No. 83 Jonathan Cooper

Passage Maker - - Contents - STORY BY JONATHAN COOPER

Ifa marine arche­ol­o­gist could re­sem­ble a thing, that per­son would be Nathaniel Howe: tall and lean, sport­ing a cap­tain’s cap smeared with grease, a wispy beard, pea­coat, and an easy man­ner. He is the stew­ard for three vin­tage ships moored at Seat­tle’s North­west Sea­port, a float­ing mar­itime mu­seum lo­cated at His­toric Ships Wharf on south Lake Union. Nathaniel’s charges are old souls, in­clud­ing the most re­cent ar­rival, F/V Tor­den­skjold, a 1911 hal­ibut schooner, and the long­est-stand­ing res­i­dent, the 1889 tug, Arthur Foss. The for­mer is one of the old­est fish­ing ves­sels of her kind, the lat­ter the star of the 1933 MGM pic­ture, “Tug­boat An­nie.” The third ship in the fleet is per­haps the most dis­tinc­tive, aided by her mas­sive pro­por­tions, bright red hull, and 6-foot-tall white­block let­ter­ing. Meet Swift­sure, known for­mally as United States Lightship LV-83, a long-since-re­tired float­ing light­house.

Nathaniel and I are stand­ing in the of­fi­cer’s quar­ters at the af­ter end of Swift­sure. He is de­scrib­ing the lay­ers of peel­ing and cracked paint on the wooden trim and steel sup­port beams that sur­round us like a ge­ol­o­gist might dis­cuss stri­a­tions in ex­posed gran­ite. You can pic­ture the calm night on sta­tion, the air thick with cig­a­rette smoke, and a game of gin rummy play­ing out on the room’s cen­tral ta­ble. Sur­rounded by cab­ins for the cap­tain, 1st mate, com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer, and oth­ers with the stripes to gain ac­cess to this part of the ship, this is where de­ci­sions were made, but stripes or not, every­one was sub­ject to the sea­sickin­duc­ing mo­tion of a lightship on sta­tion.

Swift­sure— a 3rd gen­er­a­tion lightship—mea­sures a cav­ernous 129-feet from stem to stern, 28 at the beam, and draws 12 feet un­der her wa­ter­line. Nathaniel paces us through­out, from wind­lass room—which once housed all the chain for the ship’s 7,000-pound cast iron mush­room an­chor—down three flights of stair­cases, all the way to the ship’s steam boiler. Along the way, he in­ter­jects facts—ver­i­fi­able in records from the ship’s long his­tory at sea—as well as the­o­ries that he’s con­structed from his own dis­cov­er­ies on board. Built 113 years ago, Swift­sure is the last re­main­ing lightship that still has her orig­i­nal dou­ble-ex­pan­sion steam engine.


The orig­i­nal lightship de­sign is cred­ited to English­man Robert Ham­blin, who gained per­mis­sion from King Ge­orge II to build a pro­to­type in 1731. As all sub­se­quent ships would be named and re­named ac­cord­ing to their sta­tion, lightship Nore’s duty was to pro­tect ships from the Nore Sands in the River Thames es­tu­ary east of Lon­don. Her method to light up the skies may have been crude by to­day’s stan­dards—the crew had to tend two oil lanterns strung as high as they could man­age above the ship’s decks—but de­spite the dif­fi­culty of keep­ing the wicks aflame dur­ing even mod­er­ate winds, mariners found the ship in­dis­pens­able to nav­i­ga­tion. Ham­blin’s lightship con­cept was a suc­cess. As the ship’s util­ity was rec­og­nized and adopted, the de­sign evolved and pro­lif­er­ated to coastal Europe and even­tu­ally to the United States, start­ing with the first U.S.-built lightship in 1820. The first sev­eral ships on this side of the pond worked the shal­low en­tries and shift­ing shoals of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, but they were de­signed as tra­di­tional ships, with lit­tle re­gard to the ves­sel’s duty to hold sta­tion for months on end. In the day, it was im­pos­si­ble— or, at least im­prac­ti­cal—to build light­houses ev­ery­where they were nec­es­sary, so light­ships were de­ployed as aids to nav­i­ga­tion, and for search and res­cue when nec­es­sary.

In the early days of the U.S. lightship pro­gram, a lack of ad­e­quate fund­ing left the grow­ing fleet in a sorry state, and many ships were in­fected with wood rot, left with mal­func­tion­ing or out­dated equip­ment, and had no stan­dard­iza­tion of naval ar­chi­tec­ture, or even ship­board pro­ce­dures. A crit­i­cal 1851 review of ships in ser­vice helped turn the ta­bles, and the fol­low­ing year light sta­tions (houses and ships) fell un­der the con­trol of a newly formed Light­house

Bureau which sought to stan­dard­ize and im­prove the con­di­tions at sea, as well as the struc­ture of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Once the pro­gram turned around, light­ships flour­ished for nearly six decades un­til their use reached a pin­na­cle around the turn of the 20th cen­tury, with a to­tal of 56 ships on sta­tion in 1909. Three decades later, con­trol of light sta­tions shifted to the United States Coast Guard, though the to­tal num­ber of ships had al­ready started to de­cline as less ex­pen­sive nav­i­ga­tional buoys and chan­nel mark­ers be­gan to put an end to their story. By 1983, the fi­nal ship— Nan­tucket I— re­tired from ac­tive duty in New England. In his farewell mes­sage to the ship and the lightship pro­gram, Coast Guard Com­man­dant Ad­mi­ral James S. Gracey said, “Tech­nol­ogy has found a way to re­place her with a more cost-ef­fec­tive aid to nav­i­ga­tion, but her sailors (nor the sailors of all light­ships) can never be re­placed.”


Duty aboard light­ships was ex­haust­ing, danger­ous, and deadly in the worst con­di­tions. When the con­di­tions were per­fect, life on board could be dull and life­less. But the dan­gers in­her­ent in lightship ser­vice were many, in­clud­ing the re­al­ity that a lightship’s duty was to hold sta­tion no mat­ter the fury of the storm or the den­sity of the fog. She was also, by def­i­ni­tion, a beacon, a bear­ing at which ev­ery weary cap­tain could point his ship and steer to­ward safety. Un­for­tu­nately this went hand-in-hand with light­ships get­ting sideswiped or rammed and some­times sunk at sea.

Au­thor Wil­lard Flint cites in A His­tory of U.S. Light­ships, that there were 237 doc­u­mented in­stances of light­ships blow­ing off sta­tion by se­vere winds or car­ried away by pack ice. Like­wise, there were 150 doc­u­mented col­li­sions, five of which were se­ri­ous enough to re­sult in the lightship’s sink­ing. By far the most fa­mous, Nan­tucket (LV-117), was sliced in half by the 47,000-ton ocean­liner, HMS Olympic ( Ti­tanic’s sis­ter­ship), when a mis­cal­cu­la­tion of bear­ing re­sult­ing in a T-bone col­li­sion at high speed. Just a few weeks prior, a crew­man of the lightship snapped a photo of Olympic steam­ing past at an un­com­fort­ably close dis­tance. Such was the duty of the lightship: a sit­ting duck with no abil­ity to move quickly to evade col­li­sion.

Not all of the sto­ries are woe­ful, though. Nathaniel has tes­ti­mony from a crew­man who served aboard LV-83 when it was moored as a relief ship by the Bal­lard Locks in Seat­tle. It was New

Year’s Eve, 1959, and the ship’s of­fi­cers were at­tend­ing a gala to ring in the New Year. The skele­ton crew on board de­cided to join in the cel­e­bra­tion by blow­ing the ship’s Cun­ning­ham Di­a­phone air foghorn at the stroke of mid­night. The re­sult­ing 140-deci­bel horn blast shook build­ings and blew out all the win­dows at a nearby ma­chine shop.


Af­ter her 1904 chris­ten­ing in Cam­den, New Jersey, LV-83 steamed around Cape Horn (the Panama Canal wouldn’t be fin­ished for an­other decade) and took up sta­tion at Blunts Reef off Cape Men­do­cino, Cal­i­for­nia. LV-83 would be­gin her first quar­ter cen­tury with “BLUNTS” painted on her hull­sides. On her first as­sign­ment, there are records of her be­ing blown off sta­tion at least six times, in­clud­ing four times in 1907, and once in 1915 when recorded winds on the Pa­cific hit 110 mph. She also had a hero’s mo­ment be­fore she de­parted for duty in San Francisco, when in 1916 she res­cued 150 pas­sen­gers from the steamship, Bear, which had grounded on a reef in thick fog.

LV-83 would spend her life work­ing lightship duty on the West Coast, with a brief in­ter­mis­sion as a U.S. Navy ex­am­i­na­tion ves­sel dur­ing WWII. Ev­i­dence of this lies in ex­tra steel sup­ports that were welded in to help weild a deck-mounted depth charge Y-gun. Nathaniel sur­mises that us­ing the heavy ma­chin­ery led to a bend­ing and warp­ing of the steel, which clearly wasn’t up to the task.

LV-83 also served the West Coast as a relief lightship, serv­ing as a backup for the pri­mary, newer ships sta­tioned at Columbia, Umatilla, and Swift­sure Banks un­til she re­tired in 1960.

To­day, she is called Swift­sure, named af­ter the bank that marks the en­trance where the Pa­cific Ocean flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca be­tween Washington and Van­cou­ver Is­land. Like many such en­trances, the area has laid claim to count­less ship­wrecks, and is con­sid­ered the north­ern end of the “Grave­yard of the Pa­cific” (with the south­ern end stretch­ing to the Columbia River bar). Though LV83’s own his­tory as the lightship at Swift­sure Banks was in­ter­mit­tent, at least four ships served here, in­clud­ing LV-113. Dur­ing a fierce win­ter storm in 1936, LV-113 re­port­edly held on and sur­vived a 12hour bat­ter­ing in sus­tained winds of 100 mph. The cap­tain re­ported waves break­ing over the pilothouse, wa­ter turn­ing into “bul­lets” against the hull, and the air so thick with spray that only half of the boat was vis­i­ble to those on board. Job well done, though, as there were hun­dreds of doc­u­mented in­stances when light­ships were blown off sta­tion, and LV-113 sur­vived the night.

Oc­ca­sion­ally Nathaniel gives tours to crew­men who served aboard. Once, when show­ing Swift­sure, a for­mer sailor told him his first as­sign­ment was on the Swift­sure Banks lightship, LV-113. “He told me he was sea­sick for six days in a row dur­ing a storm. On the sev­enth day, he was fine, and has never been sea­sick ever again,” re­counts Nathaniel.


Swift­sure will never op­er­ate at sea again, but she serves an im­por­tant dual pur­pose in her sec­ond cen­tury, as have the other his­toric ships moored by her side. She con­tin­ues to rep­re­sent a piece of mar­itime his­tory that will be pre­served as a float­ing mu­seum. She will rep­re­sent her var­i­ous his­to­ries un­der the Light­house Bureau, Coast Guard, Navy, and most im­por­tantly, she will for­ever stand as a beacon that helped save lives aboard ships in dis­tress in the most chal­leng­ing wa­ters in the world.

Swift­sure is al­ready serv­ing an ed­u­ca­tional pur­pose. As her decks are re­built piece by piece with 3-inch-thick Dou­glas Fir planks, Nathaniel and ship­wright Brian John­son work to re­store

the ves­sel so that she can con­tinue as a teach­ing plat­form for other marine arche­ol­o­gists, boat­builders, en­gi­neers, and whatever else they can un­earth to en­rich stu­dents of all ages.

It strikes me that Nathaniel couldn’t be more per­fect for this post. His en­thu­si­asm for the job—an af­fair that is part fund-raiser, part grant ap­pli­ca­tion writer, and part mu­seum do­cent—is in­fec­tious. The North­west Sea­port and other preser­va­tion so­ci­eties from the Columbia River Mar­itime Mu­seum (WLV-604) in As­to­ria, Ore­gon, to His­toric Ships in Baltimore, Mary­land (LV-116), have ded­i­cated count­less hours in sup­port of these ves­sels, and con­tinue to honor the mem­ory of the sailors who paid the ul­ti­mate price to pro­tect oth­ers who had lost their bear­ings at sea.

To in­quire about supporting the ren­o­va­tion of Swift­sure LV-83, con­tact: www.nwsea­

Also, spe­cial thanks to the Columbia River Mar­itime Mu­seum staff, in­clud­ing Jeff Smith, Matthew Palm­gren, and Marcy Dun­ning for their help gath­er­ing re­sources for the story. Visit their beau­ti­ful mu­seum in As­to­ria, Ore­gon, and visit them on­line:

Above: A file photo from a crewmem­ber on Nan­tucket LV-117, as the RMS Olympic ocean liner steamed by the lightship’s sta­tion. The photo was taken in Jan­uary 1934, only four months be­fore Olympic would col­lide with Nan­tucket and sink her, killing seven...

Be­low: Like most lightship sta­tions, the Swift­sure Banks be­tween Washington State and the south­ern end of Van­cou­ver Is­land was no stranger to bad weather. The stretch of coast­line is of­ten called the “Grave­yard of the Pa­cific” due to the num­ber of...

Above: The first lightship on sta­tion on the West Coast was LV50, Columbia. Sta­tioned at the mouth of the Columbia River, 50 was blown off sta­tion and grounded at Cape Dis­ap­point­ment, Washington, in a gale. She was rolled on tracks 1/2-mile over land,...

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