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N.Y. group restoring Nantucket lightship

The historic vessel will be part of the National Lighthouse Museum, expected to open this year

It was hard to miss the Nantucket Lightship at Oyster Bay, N.Y.’s Oyster Festival last fall. The 150-foot fire

-engine-red hull dominated the harbor when it arrived for the weekend event.

And the lightship is still dominating the harbor months later.

When the other visiting vessels headed for their home ports, the floating lighthouse, owned by the National Lighthouse Museum being established on Staten Island, remained behind.

As winter rolled into spring, it remains at The Waterfront Center so a group of local volunteers can restore the vessel, built in 1936. When the work is complete, probably in late summer, the ship will return to a newly restored pier adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, where the lighthouse museum is expected to open an exhibit building by the end of the year.

The museum brought the lightship to the oyster festival and left it in Oyster Bay because of the volunteers who worked on the restoration of the historic oyster sloop Christeen in 1998 and 1999. The group was looking for a new project.

“These guys know what they’re doing,” says Ben Butler, director of marine operations for the lighthouse museum and supervisor of the restoration. “I don’t want a bunch of weekend sailors on the boat.”

The volunteers went right to work, stringing Christmas lights and working on the boiler so they would have heat aboard. Then they set out their job list: overhaul the engines, generators and galley equipment; correct a ballast problem causing the ship to list to starboard; and repaint the flaking hull and interior.

The lightship, designated WLV-534 by the government, is one of a series of vessels that alerted mariners to the shoals off Nantucket Island, Mass. It was built after the RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, rammed and sunk her predecessor. The British paid for the replacement, the world’s largest lightship. During World War II, the vessel was painted gray and outfitted with guns before being assigned to guard the harbor at Portland, Maine. Back on station after the war, the ship in 1954 survived Hurricane Edna, whose 110-mph winds and 70-foot seas nearly ripped the pilothouse off the deck and blew out most of the portholes.

Retired in 1975, the ship was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It was docked at the Intrepid museum in Manhattan before being acquired by the HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn., which sold it to the lighthouse museum in 2002 for $1.

The ship was brought to Brooklyn the following month and docked at the Red Hook Terminal while the city spent $1.5 million to repair the Staten Island pier.

When the museum took title to the vessel, Butler asked the Rose organization about volunteers who had worked on the vessel while it was in Connecticut. They mentioned Bill Shephard Sr. of Plainview, N.Y., and his son, Bill Jr. The elder Shephard suggested bringing the ship to Oyster Bay because he had worked on Christeen. Now he’s heading the volunteer effort for the Nantucket.

One of the volunteers, Bob Gubatosi, comes all the way from Pennsylvania to serve as cook. His dedication is explained by a special connection with the lightship: he was a seaman aboard when it was on station in Massachusetts.

Shephard, 73, a retired Grumman engineer, first got involved in marine restoration by working on the tall ship Wavertree at South Street Seaport in Manhattan. “I was in the Navy for four years and I’ve always had a boat,” he says. “I just love the water.”

He worked on the lightship in Bridgeport every Saturday with the hope of having the vessel participate in Operation Sail 2000. But insurance problems kept the vessel from participating.

Now he has been joined by more than 20 volunteers, including midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

Butler said the museum expects to spend about $25,000 for materials and equipment to make the ship seaworthy.

While the Nantucket remains in Oyster Bay, Rob Crafa, director of The Waterfront Center, plans to capitalize on its presence. “It’s an amazing educational tool,” he says. “People understand the purpose of a lighthouse, but a lightship is foreign to many people.”

After the ship leaves, hopefully under its own power, Butler plans to use it as a dockside display, for fundraising events and school tours in Staten Island. “I want to go to different festivals … so we will get known,” he said.

And he hopes the Oyster Bay volunteers will stay involved with others recruited in Staten Island. “It’s a national treasure, and I want to keep it that way,” Butler says.