Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-01-22.
The area to the south and east of the island of Nantucket is extremely dangerous. The range, measuring 23 miles by 40 miles, lies just off transatlantic shipping routes with some areas as shallow as three feet. Strong currents kept the shoals in a constant state of flux making them hard for mariners to avoid.
With as many as 100 shipwrecks in the area, this issue was brought before Congress in 1843. It would take another ten years, but Congress approved the construction of a lightship with an appropriation of $15,000.
In 1853, Tardy & Auld of Baltimore, Maryland was awarded the contract to build Light Vessel 11 with a contract price of $13,462. When completed in 1854, it would be known as the Nantucket New South Shoal lightship. LV-11 would serve until 1855 when the mooring failed allowing the vessel to be blown 50 miles to the west where it went aground on Montauk Point.
Light Vessel 11 was salvaged and towed to the New York Navy Yard where it required an $11,000 rehabilitation to make it seaworthy again. While LV-11 was being repaired, Light Vessel 1 was stationed at Nantucket in January 1856. Once repaired, LV-11 went on to mark the Brenton Reef in Rhode Island.
There is evidence that this location, being exposed to the open Atlantic was a tough station. Records show that LV-1 parted chain, or lost its anchor 23 times, possibly more as records are incomplete, sending the vessel adrift. Sometimes it would take as many as 20 days to work back to its location, other times it would require towing to bring it back to its location.
Both LV-11 and LV-1 were built in the 1850s, and as such were powered by sail. In 1891, The Lighthouse Board requested a steam-propelled lightship equipped with a steam fog-signal for the Nantucket New South Shoal station. It was approved in 1892.
Light Vessel 54 was an iron-hulled steam-powered vessel that would take the place of LV-1 on November 13, 1892 and become the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship. This vessel would serve the location until April 10, 1893 when it was withdrawn for repairs. Relief Light Vessel 9 would serve until LV-54's replacement on June 21, 1893.
During the time LV-54 was withdrawn for repairs, 25-tons of pig iron were added for ballast. Government records indicate that the vessel was deemed unsuitable for such an exposed area, and on July 26, 1894, LV-58 replaced LV-54, which went on to serve as the Boston Lightship.
Light Vessel 58 served as the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship until July 1896. To honor a petition by steamship owners, the Lighthouse Board established a lightship presence at Fire Island to provide a safer passage to New York Harbor. As Light Vessel 68 was under construction, LV-58 was ordered to Fire Island on July 15, 1896.
On July 6, 1896, Light Vessel 66 took over and assumed the role as the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship. On October 17, the station position changed. The vessel was ordered to move 17-and-a-quarter miles southeastward, and the name was changed to Nantucket Shoals.
Light Vessel 66, in need of repairs, was ordered to steam to New Bedford. Relief Light Vessel 58 arrived on December 5, 1905 and five days later it developed a leak in the fire-room compartment during a heavy gale. After rising water extinguished the boilers and suction pumps failed, the crew had no choice but to bail by hand.
While LV-58 was being towed back to port by the tender Azalea in heavy seas, the crew exhausted having bailed water for over 24 hours, gave the signal "must abandon." The crew safely evacuated to Azalea, and within ten minutes, LV-58 listing heavily starboard, slipped below the sea. Upon news of the sinking, LV-66 returned to the station immediately, arriving on December 18, 1905. This vessel would continue to serve at the Nantucket Shoals location until 1907 when Light Vessel 85 took over. LV-85 would serve the location until 1923.
The Lighthouse Board would move lightships around as needed. Light Vessel 106 took over the station in 1923 and would serve until 1931. The next vessel to take over duty was Light Vessel 117.
Light Vessel 117 was built in 1930 by Charleston Drydock & Machine Co. at a contract cost of $274,434. LV-117 was only in service for four years before being rammed by the British White Star Line RMS Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic, on May 15, 1934 in dense fog.
Although the lightship's radio beacon was detected by the Olympic, the captain misjudged them and ordered the ship's course to be changed 10 degrees port. After failed attempts by the radio operator to reach LV-117 to determine their exact coordinates, the captain thought they were clear of the lightship.
A few minutes later, the lookout of the Olympic spotted LV-117 dead ahead and notified the captain, who gave the orders to set the rudder full to port and engines to full speed astern. By then, it was too late. Although the Olympic had slowed to 3 knots, it collided with the side of LV-117 at 11:06am.
Passengers aboard the larger Olympic reported feeling only a "slight jar", but noticed that the engines reversed the propellers to immediately stop the ship. Life Boats were deployed quickly, but after nearly an hour of searching, only seven of the 11 man crew from LV-117 were recovered, three of which died in the Olympic's hospital.
It was reported that the Nantucket Lightship (LV-117) sank so fast that anyone below deck would have had very little chance of survival. For restitution, the White Star Line paid the U.S. Government $500,000, some of which was used to build Light Vessel 112.
Light Vessel 106 would return to Nantucket Shoals upon the sinking of LV-117 and would stay until 1936 when LV-112 was completed. Light Vessel 112 was built in 1936 by Pusey & Jones of Wilmington, Delaware at a cost of $300,956, more than any other lightship ever built in the United States. The length of the vessel was 148' 10" displacing 1050 tons making it the largest lightship in the United States.Not only was LV-112 the largest lightship ever built in the U.S., but to make sure it would withstand a collision, it was constructed to the specifications of a battleship. Comprised of 43 watertight compartments and a double hull made of nearly 1.5-inch armor plating, it was said to be virtually unsinkable. The vessel was also equipped with six exits to the upper deck to make escape possible should it be necessary in an emergency.
San Francisco Lightship / WLV-612 - 1950.
LV-112 would serve as the Nantucket Shoals Lightship until 1942 when it was pulled by the U.S. Navy, painted gray, armed with two 20mm guns, and renamed to the USS Nantucket. It would become an examination vessel off the coast of Portland, Maine during World War II. At the culmination of the war, LV-112 was returned to mark the shoals and would serve until 1958.
During Hurricane Edna, LV-112 would sustain heavy damage. Hours would pass as the vessel endured 110-mph winds and 70-foot seas. When the storm had passed there would be damage to the bow plates, the pilot doors and windows blown in, life boats demolished, anchor lost, and the rudder severely damaged. But it survived.
WLV-196 would take over duty from 1958-1960. At that time, LV-112 was renamed Relief, and would serve to relieve other vessels along the east coast. In April 1960, LV-112 was ordered to Curtis Bay, Maryland for modernization, which included a new 900HP diesel engine, removal of the steam stack, and upgrades to the lighting apparatus.
Upon completion of the renovations, it was returned to Nantucket Shoals, a position it would serve from 1960 to 1975. On March 21, 1975, WLV-612 took over the Nantucket Shoals station, and LV-112 was retired from duty.
One of the last two vessels to serve as the Nantucket Lightship was WLV-612. The vessel was built in 1950 at Curtis Bay, Maryland for $500,000. When completed on September 18, it was transferred to the West Coast via the Panama Canal where it became the San Francisco Lightship. It was stationed 8.6 miles from the Point Bonita Lighthouse at a bearing of 244 degrees, where it would stay until 1969.
Blunts Reef Lightship / WLV-612
From 1969 to 1971, it would become the Blunts Reef Lightship, where it was stationed 4.5 miles from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse at a bearing of 266 degrees. When it was replaced by a lighted horn buoy in 1971, WLV-612 was transferred to the first district where it again traversed the Panama Canal.
WLV-612 would be the only lightship to traverse the Panama Canal in both directions. It would serve as the Portland Lightship until 1975 when it was reassigned to Nantucket Shoals. It would serve that location by itself until 1979 when WLV-613, its sister ship, was assigned to share the duty.
Each vessel would mark the location for approximately 21 days, and would relieve the other. WLV-612 would be known as Nantucket I and WLV-613 would be known as Nantucket II. They would share the assignment until December 20, 1983 when WLV-613 was replaced with a lighted navigational buoy (LNB) making it the last ship to serve as the Nantucket Lightship.
From 1983-1985, WLV-612 would keep its official designation as a lightship, although it would perform Coast Guard duties as a cutter participating in law enforcement, security, and public relations missions.
One of its first assignments was to provide a radar and communications platform for the Vice President while the Bush Family was vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine.
From the fall of 1984 through early 1985, the light vessel was deployed to the southern waters where it participated in operations to determine its usability as a support vessel. While deployed, the vessel was able to pull a disabled Coast Guard vessel to Miami Harbor after it drifted close to Cuban waters.
Although it performed well at many of these tasks, the cost to convert the lightship to a support vessel was prohibitive, and the vessel was returned to Boston. It was decommissioned on March 29, 1985 and sold to the Boston Educational Marine Exchange. It was later returned to the General Services Administration due to financial problems.
The State of Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) purchased the vessel in 1987 for $1,500. The group had planned to turn it into a floating museum, but funding never materialized. It was moved to Marina Bay in Quincy, Massachusetts until funding could be sourced.
While at the marina, a group calling itself "The Friends of the Lightship Nantucket" was formed and would volunteer their time to restore the aging ship. However, in the late 1990s, the Metropolitan District Commission withdrew its support and put the vessel up for auction on eBay in 1999.
Attorney and former Massachusetts state senator Bill Golden won the auction with a final bid of $126,100, beating out several scrap metal companies in March of 2000. Upon winning the auction, the vessel was delivered to New Bedford where 11 master craftsmen completed a deck-down restoration which converted the utilitarian-like cabin into 4,000 square feet of opulence.
Over the years, the Goldens have spent an untold amount of money on the ship, which included replacing the declining engines with a new Caterpillar diesel engine in which Bill Golden described as "the size of my Ford Explorer and seven times as expensive."
To regain some of the money spent on the transformation, the family had to run the vessel as a commercial charter operation. The vessel was available for charters, unique event space, and overnight stays out of many locations over the years including Connecticut, Newport, and Manhattan.
It was most recently docked at Conanicut Marine in Jamestown, Rhode Island for the summer of 2013 where it was available for charters and the fall of 2013 saw the vessel returning to New York City with cruises up the Hudson River.
The Goldens put WLV-612 up for sale in 2006 so they could spend more time with their young son. It is currently listed on yachtworld.com for $6,250,000. For information on booking the lightship, please visit their website at www.nantucketlightship.com.
Note: The lightship is private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
Directions: During June of 2011, the lightship was in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. However, the lightship docks at other ports such as Nantucket, Boston, and New York.
Accesss: The lightship is currently for sale as well as available for charters. It has been docked at numerous ports over the years, including New York, Martha's Vineyard, Boston, and when we spotted it, at Newport, Rhode Island. For information on booking the lightship, please visit their website at www.nantucketlightship.com.View more Nantucket I Lightship (WLV-612) pictures