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Anybody want A lightship?

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  • Anybody want A lightship?

    The 60-year-old floating lighthouse Relief has a light beam that can be seen for 23 miles and foghorns that shake the whole boat.

    © Jessica Pons / The Chronicle

    The lightship Relief, one of America's rare floating national historic landmarks, is looking for a good home. The price is right. The owners of the ship will give it to a worthy organization absolutely free.

    The ship is 128 feet long and 60 years old, and comes with two 500,000 candlepower lenses capable of casting a beam of light that can be seen for 23 miles, and a pair of foghorns so powerful they caused the ship to shiver with the sound. It has a free berth at Jack London Square in Oakland, is painted a bright red and is beautifully restored, fully functional and seaworthy.

    However, said Wayne Wheeler, president of the United States Lighthouse Society, which owns the ship, "we are losing $20,000 to $30,000 a year on her.

    "I don't want to see that ship go to scrap," he said, "We'll give it away. We'll give it to somebody who can take care of it."

    Lightships have a long history, going back 200 years. Essentially they were floating lighthouses, permanently stationed at sea off major ports or dangerous coastal areas. Hundreds of them were built. One of the most famous was the Ambrose Light, at the entrance to New York Harbor.

    There was also a lightship stationed 8 or 10 miles off the Golden Gate. The lightship San Francisco made history in 1898 when it sent the first ship-to-shore radio message.

    Built in 1950
    The Relief itself was built in 1950 and served as the lightship off Blunts Reef on the California coast, off Umatilla, Ore., and later as a relief ship, replacing regular station vessels when they needed repairs.

    Duty on a lightship was no picnic. A dozen Coast Guard crewmen were on the ship at any one time in all weather, including fierce storms. The foghorn which sounded at regular intervals was so loud it was "an instrument of the devil, a device designed in hell for the specific purpose of torture," wrote James Gill, founder of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

    Lightships eventually became expensive to operate and obsolete. The San Francisco lightship was replaced by a large buoy more than 35 years ago, and the last lightship of all sailed away from its station off Nantucket Island in the Atlantic in 1983.

    The Lighthouse Society bought the Relief on the last day of 1986 for $1 from a wealthy individual who found that the old adage about a ship was true: It is a hole in the water into which you pour money. The Relief needed a lot of work.

    "We couldn't pass up the opportunity," said Jeff Gales, the Lighthouse Society's executive director. "But what we thought was a five-year, $15,000 project turned out to be a 15-year, $500,000 project," he said.

    Once restored after nearly 40,000 hours of volunteer work and being designated a National Historic Landmark, the Relief needed a permanent berth and in 2002 got permanent dock space at Jack London Square.

    It was open for free tours on weekends; but the Relief wasn't exactly a smashing success: in seven years it drew only 16,585 visitors and the income from tour donations and souvenir sales averaged a bit over $5,400 a year. Meanwhile, the Relief required 34,728 in maintenance man-hours, 16,000 gallons of fuel oil and the salary of a part time ship keeper. It was not earning its keep.

    A white elephant
    The Lighthouse Society kept its program of education about the historic role of lighthouses and historic tours going, but the ship was a white elephant. And there are some big bills looming.

    The Relief hasn't been dry- docked in some years, and even a ship that never goes to sea floats in salt water, a very hostile environment. A trip to the dry dock can cost $200,000 and up.

    Gales and Wheeler began looking for some nonprofit or government body to take the ship. They tried the National Park Service, which runs the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, but they had their hands full with their own collection. They tried the Coast Guard Auxiliary, but they said thanks, but no thanks.

    "We can't seem to come up with a responsible individual or group that will take care of this lightship," said Gales. Now the society is making a public appeal. "I don't want to see all that work and all those years go down the tubes," said Wheeler.

    Wheeler is so anxious to find a rescuer for the Relief he's making an offer the right organization can't refuse. "We'll put up $10,000 a year for two or three years," he said.

    Lightship Relief
    For more information, call the U.S. Lighthouse Society at (415) 362-7255 or visit

    E-mail Carl Nolte at

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  • #2
    Mushroom anchor hanging off the old girl, you just don't see them anymore!