Life on a Lightship

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The Brenton Reef Lightship Station guided vessels in Rhode Island’s lower Narragansett Bay around the clock, 365 days a year, from 1853 to 1962. Four lightships served the station, and the one shown here is LV-39, which was in service from 1897 to 1935. A dozen men served on board for four weeks at a stretch, with another five on a rotating two-week shore leave.

Coast Guard historian and author Capt. W. Russell Webster describes life aboard these once-vital navigational aids. Crewmembers got out of bed at 7 a.m. and sat down to breakfast a half-hour later. By 8 o’clock, they were scraping, scrubbing and painting around the ship, working over the side or up in the rigging during summer, delving deep into the ship’s hull in winter. There also was a constant effort to maintain the engines, systems and safety gear, including lights, bells, whistles and the steam foghorn.

The workday ended at noon. Those who were off duty relaxed by playing cribbage, planning their next shore leave, listening to the radio. “Above the clatter and chatter could be heard the jazz of the ’40s from a large radio that, because of our particular type of function, we were allowed to have,” Webster writes.

Regular watches continued in the wheelhouse, where ship-to-ship radio monitored traffic and delivered weather information. Everyone on board dreaded fog, not only because of the danger of a collision, but also because of the foghorn. “It was worst in the summer months,” Webster writes. “The horn might be left in continuous operation. … To be out on the spar deck when the horn was in use was a nerve-shattering experience.”

Lightship service could be a risky occupation. The vessels were often blown or dragged off station; several met their fate this way. A host of commercial ships went down in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of September 1944, with a loss of 344 lives, including all 12 crewmembers aboard the Vineyard Sound Lightship LV-73.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.