Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2022

The Lightvessel

Keeper of the Lightstation

By Walter White


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The San Francisco Lightship LV-70 is shown docked ...

- An edited reprint from a 1931 Ventura County, California newspaper.

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Walter White was serving on the San Francisco ...

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San Francisco LV-70 is docked at the Yerba Buena ...

“What is a lightvessel?” so many have asked. It is a floating lighthouse anchored off shore, off dangerous reefs, rocks, sandbars and dangerous points of land. On the Pacific Coast from San Francisco to British Columbia, we have five stationary lightvessels. Off San Francisco bar, number 70 is stationed; off Cape Mendocino, Blunts Reef, number 76 is stationed. There is also a lightvessel off the Columbia River bar, number 88, and in British Columbia waters, Swiftsure Bank, number 93, and Sand Heads, number 16.

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San Francisco LV-70 is drydocked with work being ...

These lightvessels are painted red with their names and numbers painted in white on the sides of the vessel in large letters, visible at a long distance. Lightvessels are placed in position and anchored there year ‘round. There is also a relief lightvessel which relieves these vessels one month out of the year when they go into port for annual repairs and a complete overhauling.

The duties of these lightvessels anchored in these dangerous parts are exactly as those at the lighthouse on land. Having served on one of these lonely lightvessels for nearly four years, I am in a position to give an accurate account of life aboard number 70, stationed three miles off the San Francisco bar in the year 1903, my duties being seaman and boatman.

This vessel is a two-masted schooner rigged, has a 350-horsepower engine used in emergency cases in the breaking away from her moorings during a storm. The hull has the name SAN FRANCISCO NO. 70 painted in white, each letter being five feet in height and appearing on both sides of the vessel. On each mast head there are three powerful electric lights flashing 5 seconds with an eclipse of 10 seconds. These lights are 57 feet above the level of the sea and are visible in clear weather for 15 miles.

The vessel is anchored with a mushroom anchor in 100 feet of water with a 45-fathom anchor chain (270 feet). The crew numbers 14 and consists of captain, chief officer, chief engineer, assistant engineer, 2 boatmen, 3 seamen, 4 firemen and the cook

Mail and provisions are brought out from San Francisco every two weeks by a chartered boat. A two-weeks leave of absence is given the crew, once in every six weeks of service. Perhaps the captain, seaman, cook and engineer would go ashore and at the expiration of their two weeks’ leave, return and relieve the chief officer, boatman, assistant engineer and fireman, who then enjoy shore liberty for two weeks.

The duty aboard these vessels is to keep the lights burning with regular flashes; lighting and fog apparatus in good condition; painting and cleaning the vessel; making rope slings and rope nets for the lighthouse tenders to hoist coal and provisions with. A daily log is kept by the captain and engineer, also names of passing vessels going in and out of the harbor.

The captains of passing vessels have a most friendly fellow feeling for the crew of the stationary lightvessel, and come close enough to throw overboard bunches of bananas, fruit in boxes, etc. A boat is lowered from the lightvessel and these gifts picked up, with great appreciation from the crew. The gifts may be a trifle wet, but that doesn’t mean a thing to a sailor away from shore.

Pilot boats are the lightvessel’s steady company. When they leave harbor, these pilots exchange goods daily and Sunday papers for crabs and fish caught by the crew of the lightvessel – mostly sole, flounders, hake, bonita, rock cod and bass. Several large sharks and skate are also caught.

In foggy weather, tow boats also give a friendly call and inquire of vessels passing during the night. When a large sailing vessel has been sighted and reported, tow boats race from the harbor in search of the vessel, and when the vessel is found, each captain of the tow boat will hail his price to tow the ship to port – the lowest bidder getting the tow.

When a liner steams through the Golden Gate of San Francisco bound for a foreign port and are unable to pick up the pilot boat in order to land her pilot, they have no time to cruise around, so they signal to the lightvessel. A boat is lowered and the pilot is taken off the liner, (a pilot is a licensed navigator piloting ships in and out of port), to enable the liner to proceed without delay. In stormy weather, when too rough to take off the pilot, he goes on with the vessel, that seldom happening.

I have taken off pilots from vessels in all kinds of weather, especially foggy weather, being pulled many a mile to sailing ships. To be in a 14-foot boat lowered from the lightvessel is no joke, especially when she is rolling the hardest. One second, the boat is 20 feet from the water and the next second, touching it, and in the darkness at times I have had several narrow escapes from capsizing while being lowered from the lightvessel’s davits. And to unhook the hooks from the boat means all fingers and no thumbs, especially when the vessel is rolling heavy. When the liner leaves the lightvessel she blows a farewell toot-toot-toot with her horn, the lightship answering, which means goodbye and good luck amongst seafaring men.

Life is a hard one at its best for this stationary crew. In the winter time, the strong southeast storms swell up along the coast and the breaking of the San Francisco bar can be seen from the vessel’s deck. Ships race for shelter in the harbor, but Lightvessel No.70 remains fast and faces all storms, riding them out; all 45 fathoms of cable is laid out and a strict watch is kept or a terrific strain is placed on the cable.

At times, she would ride a big swell, bouncing back with a jerk, straining the cable to its utmost strength, sometimes holding fast and other times, breaking. Once in a while, a bad link separates and this has occurred several times during my experience on board No.70. Sometimes, the vessel would lay broadside to sea in a heavy swell, and for days, she would roll and roll; in fact, she rolled almost every day of the four years aboard her and at times I thought she would roll completely over.

March 10, 1904, a terrible storm from the southeast had been raging for several days, when at its height, the lightship’s cable parted at about 4 a.m. The wind was blowing 90 miles an hour off Point Reyes; the sea was running high, the weather hazy and raining and the lightvessel adrift. Sails were immediately set and the engines doing their best, but to little avail in such a storm; 14 men adrift in a vessel of this kind would go to the bottom like a flatiron with the first blow on the rocks.

All that day we fought the storm, and our only chance left was to keep away from that treacherous Duxbury Reef and cross the breaking San Francisco bar. We were making slow headway. Ahead, we could plainly hear the breaking of the bar, though too hazy to see it. To cross a breaking bar is, at any time, venturesome, and the hazards are taking a chance of gumping the bottom and sinking right there, with a thousand chances of turning turtle, thus ending it.

On we went, holding our breath as we ran into the boiling, seething sea! How those breakers did roll and tumble, and the lightvessel taking those chances riding through it all. Seas washed the decks from the fore part to the aft of the vessel, and how I managed, with the help of another seaman, to steer that vessel and head off those breakers is still a mystery to me. For 27 hours we battled the storm and steered safely to the Lighthouse Depot in San Francisco, where a new anchor and cable, coal and provisions were put aboard. Next day, we were towed back to sea and anchored to new moorings by the lighthouse tender, to resume our regular duties as a floating lightvessel.

For 30 years, this historic old Lightvessel No.70 was anchored to safely guide vessels in and out of port until last year when she was taken from her station and sold to a wrecking firm. Today, a new, modern lightship with the same name and number, carries on the duties of her sister ship. Number 70 was a good vessel in her days, and having given the best in them to service, merits retirement.

These stationary vessels are anchored in position, latitude and longitude so as to enable navigators in all kinds of weather to locate their positions. Life becomes very monotonous for the lightvessel crew. The rolling and pitching of the vessel and the continual blasts of the fog-horn during foggy season, which sometimes lasts for days, are the things that edge the nerves, but the crew and these vessels have to remain to guard life and property from those treacherous rocks and shoals. Lighthouses, lightvessels, whistling buoys and bell buoys are the mariners’ best friends.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2022 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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