Digest>Archives> August 2010

Lightship Free to Good Home

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Relief Lightship
Photo by: Randy C. Hemstad

The Relief Lightship LV605 now owned by the United States Lighthouse Society is being offered for free to any qualified nonprofit that is interested in taking it over.

The historic vessel, built in 1951 in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is one of the few remaining lightships in existence in the United States.

From 1960 to 1969 the vessel served as the Blunts Lightship off the California coast and then was renamed the Relief Lightship to serve as a relief lightship for all lightships stationed off of the coast of California. The vessel was retired from service in 1975. In 1986, rather than see the historic vessel sold for scrap, the United States Lighthouse Society purchased the vessel for $1 from a private individual.

Since then the society spent a ton of money, somewhere in the area of $400,000, and an estimated 40,000 hours of volunteer work to beautifully restore the vessel. In fact, the restoration may be one of the most meticulous and historically accurate restorations of a lightship in the nation. The vessel was eventually docked at Jack London Square in Oakland where it was open for tours and educational purposes. In 2003 the U.S. Lighthouse Society received the California Governor’s Historic Preservation Award for restoring the vessel.

But for some reason, garnering public interest in the lightship has not been easy. During the seven years that it was open for free tours on the weekends the vessel drew less than 17,000 visitors. Income from donations and gift shop sales only brought in a little more than $5,500 a year. During that time the vessel required nearly 35,000 maintenance manhours, used 16,000 gallons of fuel oil, and 160,000 gallons of fresh water. Reasons for low attendance could be a combination of many reasons, such as the location, lack of public knowledge or public apathy, the economy or not enough help promoting it from other preservation groups and community leaders in the private as well as the public sector.

Interestingly, when Congress gave away millions to lighthouse preservation projects with the Federal Stimulus, in some cases more than was truly needed by and for some lighthouses, none of the congressmen thought or cared about helping the historic lightships. What many people do not realize is that a lightship was actually a floating lighthouse stationed in an area where it was too expensive or too dangerous to build a lighthouse. Additionally, lightship duty was considered the most dangerous duty in the old United States Lighthouse Service and the young Coast Guard and many a lightship crewman gave his life in the service of others. This is also something that has been learned by many of the people who have visited the lightship. Up until their visit, most did not even know what a lightship was.

Although the U.S. Lighthouse Society did the right thing in taking ownership and restoring the vessel, and they did receive a number of substantial grants, the financial cost of maintaining a vessel of this size and magnitude is cause for concern.

Historians don’t want the lightship to meet the same fate as the Lightship LV114 WAL 536 that served as the Fire Island Lightship, the Diamond Shoals Lightship and the Pollock Rip Lightship until it was sold to the City of New Bedford in Massachusetts in 1975. The City had big plans to restore the vessel and open it to the public, but the money never materialized. In 2006 the vessel sank and its remains went for scrap.

Jeff Gales, Executive Director of the United States Lighthouse Society, said that the society is not by any means giving up on the lightship. Instead, now that all the hard work has been done, they would prefer to see the vessel cared for by a nonprofit group that is solely dedicated to it for fundraising, interpretation and ongoing public tours.

The U.S. Lighthouse Society and their many dedicated volunteers who brought this historic vessel back to life are to be congratulated. They truly have made a difference. But, now they’d like to see the care of the Relief Lightship, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark, taken to the next level. Hopefully they will find the right match.

For more information on the lightship you can call the U.S. Lighthouse Society at

415-362-7255 or visit their web site at www.USLHS.org.

This story appeared in the August 2010 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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