Lightship ‘Relief’ was a floating lighthouse
A few weeks after purchasing this newspaper in May of 1977, I was shopping at the NAS Fallon Exchange and found myself in line behind a man wearing a US Coast Guard uniform.
A master chief, he told me he was the NCO in charge of Fallon’s USCG Loran station, which uses radio signals to determine the positions of aircraft. The station, he said, was one of several located across the nation that keeps track of airborne military, commercial and civilian aircraft, and it relays this information to a central command in the Midwest.
He invited me to visit his unit, and a several days later I drove over to the Loran station at the end of Soda Lake Road, which is north of the Reno Highway and west of downtown Fallon.
I had lunch with the chief and his men, who numbered about nine or 10, and their mascot, a dog named “Cesium” (cesium is a mineral found in Nevada and the West). I also toured the facility, which was equipped with several rooftop antennae, and took a photo of the men and Cesium in front of the one-story brick building. A week or so later, the photo and a story I wrote about the Loran unit appeared in this newspaper.
About five or six years later, the station was automated and its crew reassigned. The station remains in operation today, sending out its data electronically 24/7.
Since I wrote that article more than 38 years ago, I’ve written at least a half-dozen other stories and columns about the Coast Guard. The most recent was my column of Aug. 28 of this year which was about the USCG’s successes in capturing drug-running boats and their crews off the California coast.
Today, I have another Coast Guard column. It relates to my recent visit to the San Francisco Bay area and a ferry ride I took with my wife from San Francisco’s waterfront to Oakland, where we came upon a large Coast Guard ship with the word “Relief emblazoned on its hull. The Relief is berthed at the Jack London Square pier between the Oakland fireboat and the SS Potomac, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential yacht which is now a floating museum.
Disembarking from the ferryboat, we walked over to the Relief and learned that it, too, is a nautical museum.
Commissioned in 1951 and decommissioned in 1975, the Relief is a former USCG lightship, a seagoing lighthouse. Lightships came into being in early Roman times, when huge piles of brush and debris were piled onto barges and lit on fire to warn seafarers of dangerous reefs, shoals and shifting sands. The first formal lightship service was established in 1732 in Great Britain when a lightship was permanently moored at the mouth of the Thames River in London.
Alas, the Relief was closed when Ludie and I attempted to go aboard, but I was put in touch with John Hastings, the CEO of the non-profit Anchor Program which maintains the ship, who told me that the Relief is open to visitors only on certain weekends. We had picked the wrong weekend!
Hastings, 63, who is not a former Coast Guardsman, nevertheless had an exciting nautical career. He said he ran away to sea at the age of 16 and served 43 years as a member of the Merchant Marine, retiring in 2005 as a chief engineer after crewing on “so many ships that I forget some of their names” that included cargo ships, tankers, tugboats, bulk carriers and container ships.
“I’ve been a crewman and officer on ships sailing the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, the Red Sea, and many other places all over the world. I’ve also been an officer on armed U.S. Merchant Marine ships that called at ports in Vietnam and the Mideast during the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield,” said Hastings, who lives on the banks of the Sacramento River near Rio Vista, which is south of Sacramento.
The Relief (LV-605), which is 64 years old this year, is 128 feet in length, has a beam of 30 feet and had a crew of 12. Captains of the Relief and the other USCG lightships, which were stationed offshore in the Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, held the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, Hastings told me.
Atop the Relief and all the lightships was a 70-foot tower that held a 500,000 candlepower light which could be seen 23 miles out to sea. Early-day lights, before the advent of electricity, consisted of whale oil lamps hung from the ships’ high towers. In addition to the Relief, there are seven other former USCG lightships that are nautical museums. They are located in Philadelphia; Seattle; Portsmouth, Virginia; Port Huron, Michigan; East Boston, Massachusetts; Lewes, Delaware; and Astoria, Oregon.
Life aboard the iron-hulled floating lighthouses was a “real challenge,” according to Hastings. The ships, which were powered by diesel engines, were stationed from three to about 20 miles off the coast where they were anchored to the seabed. The “lightship sailors” who maintained the massive lights often suffered loneliness, seasickness and boredom during their tours of duty aboard the rolling ships… tours that lasted from four to six weeks.
“And the crews had constant fear that their anchored lightships could be rammed by other ships, sunk during heavy storms or sunk by striking dangerous underwater reefs or other obstructions.
The mission of the lightships was to illuminate the locations of moving sandbars, shoals, shallow waters, harbor entrances and the mouths of rivers. But the lightships were destined to be taken out of service and decommissioned, and by the mid-1980s the Coast Guard’s lightship fleet, which at one time numbered nearly 60, sailed away to be broken up into scrap or turned into museums.
Today, their place has been taken by large automated buoys. The lightship has passed into history along with the sail-powered schooner and whaling ships.
If you want to see a great motion picture about lightships, go to Amazon or other sources and rent or buy the movie appropriately titled “The Lightship.” Released in 1986 and starring Robert Duval, its plot revolves around fleeing felons who attempt to board and hijack a lightship in order to escape from the authorities.
Meanwhile, if you’re planning to be in the San Francisco Bay area, call John Hastings to learn when lightship Relief (LV-605) is open to visitors. His telephone is (510) 685-2346.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.