USLHS Light Vessel 117

Mar 31, 2015, 7:00AM EST
USLHS Light Vessel 117
As the Nantucket Lightship, run down and sunk by RMS Olympic on 15 May 1934 with the loss of seven crew

 Light Vessel 117 was built for the US Lighthouse Service in 1930 by Charleston Drydock & Machine Company for $274,000.  Its single screw was driven by a 350 HP electric motor powered by four 75 KW diesel engine generators.  Not built for speed, the ship had a maximum speed of 10 knots.  It had two masts on each of which a 375 mm electric lens lantern was located at a height above the waterline of about 75 feet.  It was also equipped with an electric diaphragm foghorn and a large bell.  It carried a radio for communication and a radiobeacon for electronic broadcasts to ships in its vicinity.  Light Vessel 117 carried a crew of twelve.  Its one and only station during its short career was spent as the Nantucket Lightship.  As such, it moored in thirty fathoms of water 42 miles south of Nantucket Island, marking the southern limit of Nantucket Shoals.  For vessels transiting between New York/New Jersey and northern Europe, the Nantucket Lightship was the last aid to navigation for those headed eastbound and the first for those headed westbound.  This location not only exposed the light vessel to high seas and heavy weather, it also exposed the vessel and its crew to encounters with passing ships, some of which came close aboard either through negligence or by trying to minimize transit time between ports.  On 6 January 1934, in heavy fog, the light vessel was struck a glancing blow by the SS Washington, the largest ocean liner built in the United States at the time.  The radio antenna yards were carried away and there was minor damage to the hull plates.  In April 1934, RMS Olympic passed close aboard.  There was no physical contact, but one of the crew told friends: “Someday we are just going to get it head on, and that will be the finish.  One of those big liners will just ride through us.”  On the morning of 15 May 1934, in heavy fog, RMS Olympic approached, bound for New York.  As it neared the unseen light vessel, the fog signal could be heard.  Speed was reduced to ten knots.  Suddenly, the light vessel was spotted dead ahead.  The master ordered full astern and left full rudder.  The liner slowed to three knots, but couldn’t be stopped before running down the light vessel.  On the light vessel, the chief mate (who was the acting master due to the absence ashore of the regular master) saw RMS Olympic at a distance of 500 feet.  He sounded the collision alarm and the crew donned life jackets.  Rather than cutting the light vessel in half, the liner rode over and sank the smaller vessel.  Life boats were quickly launched.  Seven survivors were recovered, but three later died of injuries and exposure.  Four crew members were never found, presumably being trapped below deck.  The British Government later paid the cost of construction of the replacement light vessel.

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