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.
DIAMOND SHOALS LV-71
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.
SOUTH GOODWIN (U.K.)
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.”