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A guiding light

Nighttime at sea.

The moon pierces the horizon, drifting in and out behind scudding clouds. A sailing ship is homeward bound in a fitful sea under topsails and courses. The sailor at the wheel shields his eyes from the glow of the binnacle, peering through the gloom ahead, searching for something so simple that we, in today's GPS world, can hardly grasp its significance: a light.

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There, is that it? No, it's gone. But wait ... yes, it's there. He sees it, the bobbing signal from the mast of a lightship - a pinpoint in all the dark and watery world but a definite place there on the navigator's chart. A location. A candle in the window signaling safe harbor, whispering "home."

It's hard for us to imagine that, once upon a time, sailors crisscrossed the seas with little idea of their true location for much of the voyage. But it's been a problem for ages, and among the ancients' earliest inventions was the lighthouse. Topped by a bonfire, the Pharos lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The lightship, in contrast, was a more humble invention, an anchored vessel with a permanent signal light.

The lightship was developed in England and made its U.S. debut in 1820 on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Va. Another soon appeared, off Sandy Hook, N.J, and the vessels caught on elsewhere. Early lightships were fore-and-afters, with two lights - one at the top of each mast - serving as a main and a spare. The kerosene lanterns were visible for maybe nine miles. Other vital equipment included a hand-operated fog signal and a massive bell used to attract - and ward off - oncoming ships.

Lightships had distinct advantages over their land-based relatives. They could be used where a lighthouse was impractical, and they could be stationed offshore, farther from a dangerous coast. In all, some 200 wooden and steel-hulled lightships were built during a 160-year period, ending in the 1980s.

A century ago, there were more than 50 U.S. lightships on station that formed, along with lighthouses, what Elaine Simmerman, past president of the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation in Lewes, Del., calls a "string of pearls" guiding sailors to safety. (The foundation preserved and maintains the lightship Overfalls.

Thsi article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.