It was often said that lightship duty was the most dangerous duty of all in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the old Coast Guard. This statement had a lot of fact to it.
Lightships were anchored in a specific location where it was too dangerous or too costly to build a lighthouse structure. In reality a lightship was a floating lighthouse. Just like the lighthouse keeper, the sailors onboard lightships were required to remain on station no matter what the weather or conditions were. Over the years, these types of orders caused the deaths of many lightships sailors as well as the loss of the vessel. Some were lost in storms and others sunk in time of war.
This image, hand drawn, by Illustrated London News artist G. H. Davis, in cooperation of the Sea Rescue Helicopter Service of the Royal Air Force Station in Leuchars, Scotland,
in 1959 depicts a rescue as remembered by the crews of
It was December 8, 1959 when the un-powered, but manned by sailors, North Carr Lightship broke her moorings in the Tay estuary off the coast of Scotland. In response to her frantic radio calls for help some of the crew of the nearby Broughty Ferryboat launched one of their own lifeboats in an attempt to rescue the crew of the North Carr Lightship. Sadly their efforts were futile. The heavy seas were too much for the lifeboat and it capsized with the loss of all hands. As is often the case, the would-be rescuers lost their own lives.
Then, miraculously, the crew of the North Carr Lightship managed to weigh anchor offshore from St. Andrews Bay. A rescue ship attempted to tow the vessel to safety, but the attempts failed.
As the storm and high seas raged on into the next day, it was believed that the crew of the lightship was in imminent danger of losing their lives. Two Bristol Sycamore helicopters of the R.A.F. Station, Leuchars, which is the most northerly air defense station off the east coast of Scotland, staged a rescue operation under the command of Flight-Lieutenant J. E. McCrea.
At this time a full gale was blowing, the sky was thick with dark clouds and the lightship was rolling and pitching heavily in the in the high seas.
While the first helicopter attempted a rescue it was a near fatal mistake and the helicopter had to back off. For the next 35 minutes the first helicopter circled the ship while the lightships crew of seven men cut away the aftermast, which was complicating the rescue by air.
Then for the next 30 minutes, the two helicopters, hovering sometimes as low as 5 and 10 feet above the vessels lantern, as rapidly as could be expected under the weather conditions, lifted the men from the after-portion of the lightship. The first helicopter took four men and the second helicopter took three men. We can only assume what was going through the mind of the last man on board as he was waiting to be hoisted from the ailing vessel. The rescue was completed with no more loss of lives. But the harrowing experience is something that most of us will never be able to comprehend. In our minds, they were all heroes, but sadly some of the rescuers who lost their lives that day have also been lost to the pages of time.
When the storm subsided the North Carr Lightship was towed to the mainland for repairs and within three months the crew and the vessel were back on station risking their lives again so that others could be safe.
In 1975 the North Carr Lightship was taken out of service. Today, as Scotland’s last surviving lightship, it is a floating museum that is open free to the public.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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