Digest>Archives> June 2005

The Crewless Lightship

By Timothy Harrison


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Shown here are dual clock sets on beacon timing ...

In the mid-1930s, the United States Lighthouse Service came up with a plan to replace all manned lightships with newly designed lightships that would be radio controlled with no crews.

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This artist’s depiction of the St. Clair crewless ...

Since lightship duty was considered the most dangerous duty in the U. S. Lighthouse Service, the idea made perfect sense at the time. Even if anchored in dangerous locations or with waves smashing against them, there would be no seasick crewmembers or a chance of lives being lost on a vessel that was not allowed to move or leave its station regardless of what the weather or conditions were.

The first such prototype was the St. Clair Lightship stationed on the Great Lakes on Lake St. Clair between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

The St. Clair was a self-contained automated lightship. Once every 20 seconds, it would strike its fog bell which was actuated by compressed carbon dioxide gas from cylinders containing enough to last for four months. Fifteen minutes out of every hour, a self-operating radio beacon sent out its signal to nearby ships to get their bearings.

At nighttime, a powerful electric light at the masthead of the vessel, as in all other lightships, would automatically light and then would turn itself off at dawn. If the electric light failed, an auxiliary acetylene beacon would automatically light up to take its place. Generators would start and stop at appointed times and operated from control clocks to recharge the batteries that furnished the electric power.

If anything on the vessel failed, an operator on shore would become aware of it through his backup equipment and he would operate the system by remote control.

Apparently, other modern aids to navigation came into being such as deepwater ocean buoys that could serve the same purpose. The St. Clair crewless lightship was taken out of service in 1939, decommissioned and sold.

In the late 1940s, there were reports that the Coast Guard experimented with another crewless lightship to be placed off Sandy Hook, NJ. However, that experimental lightship was never placed in service. Eventually, all lightships in American waters were removed from service and very few remain in existence today.

This story appeared in the June 2005 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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