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Destination – Lightship Portsmouth

Museum honors lightships and the crews that served on them

Museum honors lightships and the crews that served on them

Hurricane Dora kicked up heavy seas off Nantucket Shoals Sept. 5, 1964. The storm was advancing up the coast, and Capt. Anthony Pinello, master of the fishing vessel Anthony Anne, pushed hard to reach Portsmouth before it struck with full fury.

Straining at hawsers snaking abaft the boat was a lightship with a disabled engine, its towering red bow plunging deeply into the troughs, then pitching high on the crests amid sheets of spray.

The lightship had been decommissioned after nearly a half-century of service and laid up in Portland, Maine, where it faced an uncertain future. But thanks to a revitalization effort aimed at sprucing up the Portsmouth waterfront, the old ship was bound for the Elizabeth River. It was to serve as a museum celebrating an important and colorful chapter in maritime history: the days before modern aids to navigation peppered the coast and only lightships offshore, where no lighthouses could be built, warned of dangerous shoals.

Pinello steamed on, he and his crew keeping a watchful eye on the tow. Two days later, as conditions at sea continued to deteriorate, the crew made Hampton Roads and entered the protected waters of the Elizabeth.

More than 40 years later the Lightship Portsmouth remains one of the most popular waterfront attractions in the city. The 102-foot vessel cuts an unmistakable profile at the foot of London Street, the bold white letters of its namesake cast against a brilliant red background, the beacon atop the mast rising tall. In 1989 the lightship was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Ambling the decks and then going below provides visitors with an exceptional view of the shipboard lives of the 15 officers and crew that typically ran the lightship. Quarters are fitted out realistically and filled with artifacts, uniforms, historical photographs, models and other trappings of life on board. The museum frequently offers programs with volunteers staging live demonstrations depicting the daily routines of the sailors, adding to the learning experience.

In the aft section of the ship, visitors can view the captain’s cabin and office, the officers’ mess, the engine room and galley. Passageways on both sides of the ship lead forward to the crew quarters and the all-important anchoring system at the bow. A powerful steam windlass was used to raise and lower the tackle.

Before it became a museum, the lightship served in several locations along the East Coast. She was built in 1915 at the shipyard of the Pusey and Jones Company in Wilmington, Del., with a price tag of more than $108,000, and her first station was Smith Island Shoals off Cape Charles, Va. Lightships were named for the area they were posted, and when reassigned their names were changed to reflect the new location. Hence, the ship was first called the Charles.

In 1926 she was renamed Overfalls for a particularly dangerous patch of water off Cape Henlopen, Del., at the approaches to Delaware Bay. The lightship’s next duty station was farther north, first as a relief vessel to the Nantucket Lightship. In 1951 she was posted at Stonehorse Shoals off Cape Cod, Mass., and took the name Stonehorse. The lightship was decommissioned in 1963.

Maintaining the light was an essential duty aboard the ship. Among the many tasks was cleaning the lens. The original was a 500-millimeter lens lit with a powerful kerosene lamp. This in turn was replaced with an acetylene lamp. In 1931 the light was electrified, and a smaller 375-millimeter lens was installed.

Lightships played a crucial role in keeping vessels off the shoals in the United States. They date back to the early 19th century, when the Lighthouse Service, which also operated lightships, was established. The crews endured the tedium and monotony of months at sea interspersed with violent storms and the ever-present threat of a collision with another vessel, especially in fog. The last lightship was decommissioned in 1985, and the Lightship Portsmouth stands as a reminder of the fine tradition.

For more information, call the museum at (757) 393-8741 or take a virtual tour of the lightship at .