Lighthouse vs Lightship

by Jim Gill USCG Ret. (Crossed over the Bar)

I was recently (?) asked the question, why is it that lighthouses get so much attention and lightships do not.? We see abundant funding easily obtained for lighthouse restoration and volunteer groups for care-taking abound. If a popular lighthouse is threatened with demolition or is allowed to deteriorate, there is a public outcry.

Lightships enjoy no such comforts. There are only seven of these ships left that stand any chance of survival and even so their future remains tenuous. Funding is either non-existent or miserly at best and nobody seems to care.

As an ex-lightship sailor I quickly realized that such a question deserves some hard and realistic answers. To begin with, I think it is a matter of one being great in number with high visibility and the other being pitifully few and all but invisible. Then too, there were considerable differences of environment in which the two existed. For example; lighthouses were mostly located in a place of high visibility both from seaward and the surrounding countryside. The general public could easily view most of them and a few were even available to visit.

Lightships were generally over the horizon somewhere and out of sight. The lighthouse setting was often majestic, sometimes stunning. It was a permanent location. The lightship setting was a lonely, barren stretch of often-turbulent water. Lighthouses are picturesque and romantic. Lightships (the old ones anyway) were often ugly, sinister and least of all, romantic. Lighthouses are to be found everywhere. Many are still operational. Except for an obscure seven, lightships are long gone.

Everybody knows what a lighthouse is; few have heard of lightships, and their numbers diminish as the years go by. The lightship probably earned a bad reputation, and perhaps justifiably. Serving in a lightship was never a bed of roses and over the years the poor ambiance evolved into a stigma. Consider the following:  On a lighthouse, the fog signal and attendant compressors were usually a distance removed from the living quarters. On a lightship the fog signal was just above the living quarters and the compressors just below it. The blast lifted you right out of your bunk followed by the jackhammer concussions of the compressor. If poor visibility prevailed, this bedlam could go on for days.

In most lighthouses you could walk around, make a phone call, have visitors, and, in some cases, drive uptown. You could plant a garden, grow roses, keep a cat or a dog or go for a hike. In a lightship you were totally isolated, cooped up in a steel box like an animal or a prisoner in solitary confinement

A lighthouse was usually on terra firma, solid and steady, calm and serene. A gale force wind could buffet the buildings and the sea could rage but all remained firm. On a lightship you spent a lot of time holding on for dear life. The seas were sometimes breaking clear over the ship and the motion could be violent. Most of the guys were puking their guts out into a bucket?the ones not afflicted were starving because the galley is shut down. Pots and pans are flung off the galley range even if fitted with safety rails. Sleep often impossible due to the violent motion, the roar of gale force winds and the bellow of the fog signal every thirty seconds or so.

Few lighthouses were ever run over by a steamship, crushed by ice, torn apart by raging seas or ripped from their moorings and cast ashore. The toll of death and injury in lightship disasters is appalling. Lighthouses, too, were occasionally victims. The total destruction of Scotch Cap Light Station by a gigantic Tsunami is a case in point. Six men perished, torn to shreds by the killer wave. The comparison dwindles however when matched against the many lives lost in lightships due to collisions, storms and other misfortunes.

Other factors weighed heavily in comparing the two, and those differences continued even after they were withdrawn from active service. Mainly these were financial considerations and the lightship was by far the loser.A lighthouse might require repairs but never had to proceed to a shipyard to accomplish them. Very often a coat of ordinary paint did the job. There was no requirement to stay afloat or to stay alive.

Like any seagoing vessel, the lightship was ?fair game? for the expensive whims of the shipyards. In modern times, dry-docking and other repairs might run to $100 thousand to $200 thousand dollars per year. Expensive anti-corrosive and anti-fouling paints were necessary to protect the hull below the waterline.There was a huge difference in crew requirements. The average lighthouse was manned by three men. There were exceptions of course. The Farallon Light Station, 29 miles off the California coast, once boasted a crew of ten complete with family quarters. Needless to say, it was one of the first to be automated and the personnel assigned elsewhere.

A lightship on the other hand usually carried a crew of 12 to 19 people. The difference in payroll and logistics is obvious  Lightship duty from its very inception was a harsh, cruel way of life. Assignment to a lightship was shunned almost as a prison sentence. That stigma haunted the lightship community to its very end, although by the late 1930?s conditions had improved considerably.

I served as CO of Lightship 612 in 1960 and can attest that it was one of my better assignments. The stigma, however, remained. Many Coasties ran for cover when the word ?lightship? was mentioned. Regardless of the negative aspects of the lightship, there are many ardent defenders and protectors holding forth for lightships. Whether it because of pride in the service or a brotherhood of misery is hard to tell.

So there you have it. Comparing a lighthouse to a lightship is like comparing an apple with an old tennis shoe. There is no intent here to denigrate the lighthouse, in fact quite the opposite, lighthouses are almost always beautiful and in many cases national treasures. Their preservation is vital to our maritime heritage. Although the foregoing is also true of lightships, the future of the remaining few appears bleak.


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