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Life aboard a lightship

On a chilly November day in 1939, the brand-new Cornfield Point lightship maneuvered into position off the mouth of the Connecticut River, three miles south of the Lynde Point Lighthouse in Old Saybrook, Conn. Dropping a mushroom anchor into the shallows of Long Sand Shoal, she took up her station. The bright-red, iron-hulled ship would remain there — shining her light, sounding her foghorn — for the next 32 years, a welcome symbol of safe haven to recreational and commercial skippers alike.

Built in 1938 at Rice Brothers, in East Boothbay, Maine, at a cost of $224,000, the 115-foot Cornfield Point lightship — designated LV118 — was the last of a series of vessels manning the Long Island Sound station since 1892. A lightship remained anchored for long periods of time and the crews endured all manner of seas, contrary weather and sometimes-numbing isolation.

Most of the Cornfield crew’s efforts were devoted to keeping the 15,000-candlepower electric beacon and its 10-kW diesel-driven generator in operating condition. They also maintained the 400-hp, 8-cylinder Cooper-Bessemer diesel, which spun the vessel’s 7-foot prop, and the dual-diaphone foghorn and its diesel-driven compressor. There was a hand-operated fog bell, too, just in case.

On deck, they watched and noted the weather — and kept track of passing ships. Collision was a real fear. The Cornfield Point lightship LV51 was rammed and it sank in 1902. In April 1919, a relief lightship was rammed by a barge under tow, sinking in eight minutes, the crew saving only the ship’s log and fog signal book. In 1972, the Cornfield lightship was replaced by a lighted bell buoy.

Perhaps the most famous lightship collision involved the British ocean liner RMS Olympic and the Nantucket lightship LV112 in 1934. Seven of the 11 lightship sailors went down with the ship, and three later died from injuries sustained in the collision.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.


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