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Shoals off Nan­tucket hosted nu­mer­ous light­ships, most no­tably Nan­tucket LV-117, which had a close en­counter in early 1934 when she was sideswiped by the 900-foot lux­ury liner, SS Washington. The in­ci­dent was a fore­shadow, as Nan­tucket’s bad luck turned tragic just four months later. In heavy fog around 22:00, Nan­tucket was emit­ting her usual ra­dio beacon. Ti­tanic sis­ter­ship Olympic was steam­ing down on her, us­ing the beacon to get her bear­ings, cal­cu­lat­ing room to spare around the lightship and the shoals she guarded. A bear­ing mis­cal­cu­la­tion led Olympic straight into the broad­sides of Nan­tucket, cleav­ing her in half, and sink­ing her in 200 feet of wa­ter. Four of the eleven crew died im­me­di­ately, and three more died from in­juries sus­tained from the col­li­sion.


The first ship ever as­signed to the West Coast, LV-50 came from the first gen­er­a­tion of ships built on wooden hulls and su­per­struc­ture. In a Novem­ber 1899 gale, Columbia broke free from her an­chor and landed ashore, just north of the treach­er­ous Columbia Bar, at Cape Dis­ap­point­ment, Washington. Amaz­ingly, the boat was in­tact enough to sal­vage, and an en­gi­neer­ing firm was hired to bring Columbia across a half-mile isth­mus over tracks and rollers in or­der to re­build her. She went back into ser­vice two years later. Columbia lightship WLV-604, built in Maine in 1952, was the fi­nal lightship to be re­tired on the West Coast (1979), and cur­rently lives at the Columbia River Mar­itime Mu­seum in As­to­ria, Ore­gon.


Sta­tioned off Cape Hat­teras, North Carolina, Di­a­mond Shoals LV-71 res­cued the sur­vivors of the German U-Boat at­tack on a U.S. flagged cargo ship, the S.S. Merak. Af­ter res­cu­ing Merak’s crew, Di­a­mond Shoals sent a sig­nal to other U.S. boats in the vicin­ity that there was a hos­tile in the area. German Com­man­der Walde­mar Kophamel, of the sub­ma­rine U-140, in­ter­cepted the mes­sage and opened fire on the lightship. For­tu­nately for the crew of Di­a­mond Shoals and Merak, the German al­lowed the sailors to head to shore in lifeboats be­fore sink­ing the lightship.


In Novem­ber, 1954, 22-year-old Robert Mur­ton was the only sur­vivor af­ter the Bri­tish lightship South Good­win cap­sized in an 80-knot gale near the Straits of Dover. Mur­ton wasn’t even crew of the ship— he was aboard study­ing bird mi­gra­tion pat­terns for the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture. Dressed in his pa­ja­mas and an over­coat, Mur­ton man­aged to hang onto the rail of the ship for nine hours un­til he was res­cued by he­li­copter. Mur­ton later de­scribed his or­deal: “I strug­gled in the swirling foam­ing wa­ter. Then with the sea fill­ing the gal­ley I took a chance and dived through the hatch. I just man­aged to grab the out­side of it and pull my­self through. That must have been around 1:30 am. I climbed to the side of the ship amid­ships. Seas were com­ing over me and it was as much as I could to hold on to the rail.”

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