2006 Reunion in Seattle, Washington, Page II
Story RE-printed with permission from The Seattle Post)
Saturday, October 7, 2006
Lightship sailors get chance to reminisce
Once aboard Swiftsure Lightship No. 83, they can't wait to go below deck.
The engine room beckons, and the mustiness and fuel smells surround them. Then the memories come -- they were young sailors on duty aboard the 102-year-old vessel, a unique band of brothers.
An emotional Joe Ratcliffe, 76, finds the hulking machinery he tended as an 18-year-old fireman apprentice. It is Friday morning on South Lake Union, but faces, names of shipmates, good times and terrors flow back as if carried by a current.
"I used to run these boilers and compressors and pumps," said Ratcliffe, now living in Connecticut.
He is one of 120 lightship sailors in Seattle this weekend for the annual reunion of the U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association. "I feel like I did when I first went aboard. It's hard to describe, it's phenomenal, like going into a time machine. How many times did I sit over there, doing my job, the engine humming?"
Lightships served as floating lighthouses to aid navigation in the days before buoys, computers, satellites and Global Positioning Systems. Stationed off dangerous offshore reefs and harbor entrances, the ships used flashing beacons and their very presence to warn other ships.
Really, they were sitting ducks, the retired sailors agree.
"It was a lot of work, and sometimes frightening," said Arnold Holt, 69, of Silverdale, who was a 21-year-old seaman apprentice aboard No. 83.
On Friday, he recalled when the ship, stationed off the Oregon coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, was nearly hit by a Japanese freighter while he was aboard.
"I don't know what they were thinking, but it was foggy and stormy," Holt said. "I'd just been relieved of duty (in the engine room) and heard a bunch of yelling. Compared to us, the freighter was huge, and it was no more than 100 feet away from us. I don't understand Japanese, but I heard them hollering when they realized they messed up."
Jay McCarthy, 69, of Del Ray Beach, Fla., sailed on Swiftsure's sister ship, which was hit by a freighter in 1960, and sunk, a year after McCarthy transferred to a different vessel.
It remains underwater in Ambrose Channel, a major shipping channel at the mouth of New York Bay, he said Friday.
"Other ships would aim for the lightships; they'd get their navigational fixes off the beacon, then rechart their course," McCarthy said. "But sometimes they'd miscalculate. Once, the Stockholm (the same ocean liner that sank the Andrea Doria in a 1956 collision) came so close to us, I could look into her portholes and see people changing their clothes. She didn't hit us, but we were scared stiff."
Wayne Palsson of Northwest Seaport, the Seattle-based non-profit organization that owns the Swiftsure, said lightship sailors, like World War II sailors, are courageous men with a strong sense of duty, performing a dangerous job that no longer exists.
"The mission was not to move," Palsson said, although lightships sometimes dragged off even 5,000- to 7,000-pound anchors. "If you think you get seasick in a ship moving through heavy seas, think of these sailors, who were not under power, but anchored."
The reunion helps sailors recall their service and camaraderie, and preserve lightship history, said Larry Ryan, president of the U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association. Ryan said that during a wreath-laying ceremony Saturday, the ship's bell will ring 50 times -- one time each for sailors, mostly from the East Coast and the Midwest, who lost their lives aboard lightships.
Northwest Seaport also expects to receive a $580,000 grant soon from the federal government to restore the Swiftsure for historical and educational purposes, Palsson said.
Lightship No. 83, built in 1904, is one of seven vessels retired in Washington with national historic landmark status. No. 83, named for being the 83rd such vessel built in the U.S., is one of only 16 lightships remaining, and is the only one in the country with its steam engine intact, Palsson said. It takes its name from one of the five West Coast stations where it served -- the Swiftsure bank off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Washington's Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia.
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