Historic Nantucket Lightship in town for summer
There is a new addition to the vibrant boating scene in Jamestown Harbor. Conanicut Marine is now the summer home of the historic Nantucket Lightship, a 128-foot-long, 30-foot-wide ship built by the United States Coast Guard in 1950.
The Nantucket is the second to last lightship ever built, and the last ever in active service.
After it was decommissioned in 1985, the Coast Guard donated the ship to the commonwealth of Massachusetts. The state government owned the ship for 12 years before deciding to sell it to scrappers. When historic preservation advocates raised a fuss, Massachusetts agreed to list the ship on eBay and accept whatever price it could fetch.
That’s when Bill Golden and his wife Kristen entered the story. The Goldens bought the Nantucket in an online auction in March 2000.
Lightships are basically floating lighthouses authorized by Congress to act as navigational aides for ships. The vessels were moored at specific stations in shipping lanes where construction of a traditional lighthouse was untenable.
The Nantucket South Shoals Station was formed in 1854 as a result of deaths from onthe water shipping accidents. It was the only lightship stationed in international waters. At first it was 25 miles off Nantucket’s shoreline, but the distance doubled as shipping grew larger.
The lightship helped keep ships safe in the Nantucket Shoals, an area of dangerously shallow water that stretches for hundreds of acres, right next to the transatlantic and East Coast shipping channels.
The first U.S. lightship was stationed in 1820 and the last one was built in 1952. There were a total of 167 lightships assigned to 45 stations. There have been 12 Nantucket lightships, three of which sunk: two in heavy weather and one in a collision with the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic.
Lightships were kept in place with heavy anchors that didn’t always hold them. At first the chains would break, causing the lightships to drift off station. One went all the way to Bermuda and was presumed lost until the crew suddenly showed up six weeks later. Soon after the chains were strengthened, but that caused the bows to be torn off some ships.
“Our ship represents 130 years of technological evolution in building a ship that can do only one thing well,” Golden said. “And that’s stay put.”
The end of the lightship era came about when the ships were replaced by 40-foot-tall automated buoys or Texas towers. The ships that were in the best shape were moved from station to station during that process.
The existing Nantucket Lightship has an interesting history of its own. After being built in 1950 in Curtis Bay, Md., it went through the Panama Canal and was the San Francisco Lightship from ’51 to ’69, anchored off the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship then moved north to Blunt’s Reef off Cape Mendocino were it served until 1971.
The tradition called for the ships to be named after the station they were serving, so the Nantucket Lightship didn’t always bear its present name.
The Nantucket then returned through the Panama Canal, the only lightship to have made the canal crossing twice. After arriving back on the East Coast, the lightship stood station until 1975 in Portland, Maine. It finally settled in Nantucket later that year where it remained until 1983. The next two years were spent with the Coast Guard for drug interdiction. It was also used as a Secret Service command for then Vice President George H.W. Bush off Kennebunkport, Maine.
After purchasing the ship, the Goldens turned it into a luxury charter yacht. The lightship was given a historic adaptive reuse. The interior was gutted, but the historic exterior remained intact. New wiring, plumbing and ductwork were installed below deck. There was 4,000 square feet of living space created, along with eight HVAC zones.
There are now five staterooms, a large galley, oriental rugs and original marine oil paintings. Kristen Golden served as the ship’s interior architect and general contractor.
“We kept all the curves on the main deck,” Bill said. “We used the same design principles that had been used to design a ship that could withstand 100-foot waves and 150-mph winds.”
The Nantucket Lightship is diesel powered and carries two beacons. One has 24 locomotive engine headlights and the other has a double Fresnel lens.
The lightship will remain in Jamestown through the summer where it will be available for charter. In July and August, there is a one-week minimum on charters, although there may be days between voyages where the ship can be used for events. In the fall, the ship will move to New York City where it will be used for charter cruises up the Hudson River.
Golden credits Conanicut Marine dockmaster Andrea Mc- Donald with bringing the ship to Jamestown from Newport.
“Andrea called us and asked if we had considered bringing the ship to Jamestown,” Golden said. “I’d never been here before, but we are thrilled with the marina. We’re thrilled with Jamestown. We love the location.”