Tragedy Involving the Nantucket Lightship Collision with the RMS Olympic
Where lighthouses and light stations were built on specific locations as navigational guides, to aid mariners in distress, or assist mariners in inclement weather, lightships were needed in the late 1800s as mobile floating lighthouses at dangerous locations, or within busy shipping channels where it was not possible to build a lighthouse. The crews of these relatively small vessels would endure extremely cramped and lonely conditions away from the mainland, along with extreme weather conditions in fog, violent storms, hurricane force winds, swelling seas, and natural formations like ice floes that could rip the hull of a ship. If a storm approached and vessels were trying to seek safety in nearby harbors (or even in clear weather), lightships would remain at anchor at their designated stations during the storm and provide the flashing light or sound their fog horn to help each vessel navigate to safety. Working on a lightship was known as the most hazardous profession in the Naval marine service. New England had its share of accidents and tragedy. To make matters worse, the early lightships of the late 1800s and early 1900s were usually in deteriorating conditions from lack of funding by the government.
One of the worst tragedies in lightship history involved the Nantucket Lightship LV-117. The 130-foot Lightship LV-117 was built in 1930 and went into service in 1931. It carried the most modern signaling equipment of the time. It was stationed 50 miles southeast of Nantucket Island in the deep waters stationed in the middle of the trans-Atlantic shipping channel. It was considered to be the most exposed lightship on the East Coast, as it was out the furthest and subject to the unpredictable New England weather, heavy seas, and the constant fog that would encompass the region. Its position was needed as it lay near the Nantucket Shoals, an area where the depth of the ocean decreased dramatically and had claimed many ships and lives as vessels would run aground and would be wrecked by pounding waves. From its position, incoming ships could take bearings from its elite radio signal as far as 300 miles away. One night, during heavy fog on January 6, 1934, the Nantucket transmitted radio signals to ocean liner SS Washington, the largest ocean-going ship ever built in the United States. The coordinates were misjudged by the SS Washington’s lookout, and the monstrous vessel sideswiped the Nantucket. The Nantucket made it back to port for repairs and the impending tragedy was averted.
Although it nearly escaped disaster, a few months later it would become one of the worst tragedies in lightship history. On May 15, 1934, when heavy fog had engulfed the region, as the Nantucket lay anchored in 192 feet of water just of Nantucket Shoals. That night the lightship sounded her fog horn for the incoming 47,000-ton, 900-foot ocean liner, Olympic, the sister of the infamous Titanic and Britannic vessels. She was traveling at a speed of 20 knots. The RMS Olympic had previously sailed across the Atlantic for nearly 25 years with over 250 uneventful excursions. The Olympic had been following the Nantucket’s radio beacon signal with the intent of altering her course when she was close enough to the lightship. The lookout on the Olympic had miscalculated the location of the Nantucket and was unable to see the lightship in the fog until she was a mere 500 feet from colliding with the doomed vessel. The crewmen of the Nantucket sounded the alarm for the impending collision and grabbed their life preservers as the Olympic came towards them. The Olympic was nearly 75 times the size of the Nantucket and literally ran over the lightship on its broadside, cutting it in half. The Captain of the Olympic ordered boats put over to save the crew, but the Nantucket sank within minutes. Seven of the eleven lightship crewmen drowned in the frigid waters and four were rescued, including Captain George Braithwaite. Captain Braithwaite died a few months later from his injuries. The owners of the Olympic, the White Star Line from Britain, built a new lightship for the Coast Guard as part of an agreed upon compensation to replace the Nantucket, and in remembrance to those that perished that night in 1936. It was named the Nantucket Lightship LV-112 and looked like a small version of a battleship with a stronger hull and 43 watertight compartments to keep it afloat should an impending disaster strike. It was built so that whenever the fog horn would sound, the radio transmitter would broadcast a signal at the same instance so that navigators from oncoming vessels could quickly calculate the distance to the lightship. The new Nantucket lightship served on the Nantucket Shoals, near Nantucket Island from 1936 to 1942, she was painted grey and used as an examination vessel during the World War II at the entrance to Portland Harbor. After the war, she was repainted red and returned to duty on Nantucket Shoals. In 1960, the Nantucket LV-112 underwent major renovations making it the largest lightship ever built. In those years she and her crew survived two major hurricanes in 1954 and 1959 where she lost anchor, was smashed up, and had drifted many miles away from her station. The Nantucket became the longest serving lightship on its Nantucket Station as she was decommissioned in 1975.
The lightship era ended in 1985, with many lightships gradually deteriorating. Many non-profit volunteer organizations stepped up to save those lightships remaining. Most have become floating museums as a testament to the courage and bravery of its crews who were stationed in the most hazardous conditions. Today there are believed to be only 15 lightships in existence. The Nantucket LV-112 became the last to be decommissioned and, as other lightships, fell into disrepair. With the necessary funding provided over the years, the Nantucket LV 112 now remains as the floating United States Lightship Museum and has been docked in East Boston at the East Boston Shipyard and Marina since 2009. She serves as a proud testament to the men who served in the most perilous Naval position.
If you are interested in visiting this remarkable floating museum:
United States Lightship Museum
(Nantucket Lightship LV-112)
Post Office Box 454
Amesbury, MA 01913-0010
Phone: (617) 797-0135 FAX 1 (603) 394-0285
Address to Visit the Lightship Museum:
Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina
256 Marginal Street
East Boston, MA 02128
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore, and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers. Info also on windjammer sailing, special parks and museums, and some strange sights.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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