IN PERILOUS DUTY
The Story of Lightship No. 83 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.
WEST COAST DUTY
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.nwseaport.org
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: www.crmm.org
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 shipwrecks at these two locations.
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 of the lightship’s crew.
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, and resumed her station duties after two years of repairs. Below: A typical scene shows a resupply boat and a changing of crew. The typical lightship crewman spent eight months of the year at sea.