Before network television began to capitalize on the men who risk their lives at sea, there was a fleet of brave souls patrolling the coasts of the United States aboard lightships, tasked with the duty of keeping incoming vessels safe in treacherous waters. With an abundance of loneliness, isolation, and danger, life aboard these ships meant little glory and immense sacrifice.
In his book The Lightships of Cape Cod, author Frederic L. Thompson compiled numerous such tales. The fatal shoals and perilous sandbars of Nantucket Sound had been claiming lives since Native Americans had first inhabited the area. Lighthouses were not enough to keep mariners safe as they traversed the sound. During periods of high commerce, lightships could see as many as 500 passing vessels in a 24-hour period. Had these ships and their men not been there, the damage and loss of life that could have occurred just miles off shore would have been substantial.
The first of these lifesaving vessels to patrol New England waters was stationed at the Tuckernuck Shoal off Nantucket Harbor. The Tuckernuck Floating Light, a small ship 76 feet long with a 21.5-foot beam, faithfully served mariners for more than 30 years until she met her end in 1864. A strong gale broke the ship loose from its moorings and was driven ashore at Cape Poge on Martha’s Vineyard. Miraculously, no life was lost.
Other crews were less fortunate. For almost 20 years, Lightship #73 served without incident until she was lost with all her men in the Vineyard Sound on September 14, 1944. A hurricane had made its way up from the Caribbean causing massive waves and high-speed winds that devastated the area. Once the storm passed, the #73 and her crew was gone. Experts believe that the anchor, free from its hold, swung out and delivered a fatal blow to the ship and sent her down.
In the face of danger, crews aboard these vessels often put their fellow mariner’s safety above their own. One story, written for Century Magazine in 1891, captures one such tale. During a particularly harsh winter on the South Shoal, off the eastern coast of Nantucket, the watch aboard the Nantucket #1 saw a small, dark object several miles upwind quickly drifting away from the ship, and the captain thought he perceived signs of life. Braving the treacherous waters and fierce gales, the men lowered a lifeboat and went after the object. What the men discovered was a small raft containing two men, barely alive from exposure to the elements, sitting on the corpse of their deceased shipmate. The crew brought the nearly frozen survivors back to the #1 and gave their fallen mariner a burial at sea.
After serving for almost two centuries, the last lightship was decommissioned by the United States Coast Guard in 1985. Nantucket #612 had been patrolling waters around the western hemisphere for 35 years and spent its final eight years stationed 45 miles southeast of Nantucket.
Technological advances were both the rise and fall of the lightship. As more boats became equipped with sophisticated navigational equipment, such as radar and radio, the lightship faded into antiquity. Improvements to lighthouses and the introduction of large navigational buoys proved more efficient and cost-effective at a time when the government was becoming increasingly thrifty.
Scores of lightships and crews went down performing their duty of ensuring safety to their fellow mariners as they crossed the perilous waters off Cape Cod and the Islands. A debt is owed to the select breed of men that risked life and limb on the desolate sea.