Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Nantucket Lightships

Nantucket is a picturesque island located approximately thirty miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It is a tiny island-a mere fourteen miles long and three and a half miles wide. A major tourist destination, its year-round population of nearly 10,000 residents swells to almost 60,000 during the summer months. Yet mariners and fisherman avoid the island at all costs.

Why? The Nantucket Shoals: a dangerously shallow area of the ocean that extends for twenty three miles east and forty miles southeast from the island. The shoals, known as a “graveyard of the Atlantic,” lie just off a major shipping lane and were the site of more than one hundred shipwreck during the early years of America. As a kayaker, I can’t imagine what it’s like to navigate these tricky waters.

According to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum website, a report was presented to Congress
in 1843 about the problem and indicated that “many a gallant ship lie buried in one common grave.” As a result of the report, Congress agreed to station a lightship in the shoals, but the ship didn’t arrive until 1854. And we thought the wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly nowadays!

Regardless of weather (including sleet, snow, sub-zero temperatures, hurricanes and tropical storms), crews were required to stay aboard the lightship where life alternated between utter boredom and sheer terror. The two-mast, wooden vessel, built on a schooner-style hull, was anchored at the South Shoal. At night, lanterns filled with whale oil were hung at the top of the mast that at best, could be seen for a few miles. On calm days, duties were minimal so time moved slowly for the crew. It was during the slow times the men began to make what are now known as Nantucket Lightship Baskets. The baskets were woven around wooden molds (often made from the ship’s masts) using rattan. In 1948 lids were introduced to create a lady’s handbag.

LV-112 was the longest serving lightship and served for thirty nine years. She survived Hurricane Edna, a storm that brought 110-mph winds and 70-foot swells. Other ships were not so lucky. The New South Shoal broke from her moorings twenty three times during her thirty six years of service. During one storm, she was blown eight hundred miles off station, ending up near Bermuda.

On December 20, 1983, the history of Nantucket lightships came to an end when Lightship 613 was relieved by a large navigational buoy.
Don't forget to leave a comment to be entered in the giveaway for When Dawn Breaks by Jennifer Slattery! Check the Weekly Windup on March 9th to see if you're a winner. You can visit our giveaways page for more information. 

A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com


  1. How fascinating. Love the basket. I can't imagine the buoy having quite the same 'romance' as the ships.

  2. Hi Mary: Glad you enjoyed the post. I love the baskets too, and you're right the buoys don't have the same romance. :-)

  3. This is so interesting! I've always wanted to go to Nantucket--well, anywhere up there. I think the history and architecture of the area would have me captivated for weeks. Thanks for the post!

  4. I've been to Cape Cod but never knew about the dangers around Nantucket and never heard of a lightship. What a lonely, frightening experience for those men! Thanks for posting this!

  5. Loved the post; the history fascinates me. Would love to make another trip (long ago--the first one) someday. :)

  6. Very interesting, Linda. "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" just sends shivers down your spine.

    Haha, I agree with Mary. The ships have far more 'romance' than a buoy.

  7. I would not care to be aboard a modern ship during a hurricane, let alone an old schooner. (Yes, I watched Poseidon Adventure last night.) The buoys may lack romance, but they must be a lot safer.

  8. I have a friend that lives in Nantucket so really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of Jennifer's book.

  9. I enjoyed reading your article, Linda. I've never been to the East Coast, but I am fascinated by anything to do with nautical history, ships and the sea. We used to have the Swiftsure lightship stationed at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait here in WA and there is still a yacht race from Victoria, BC to the Swiftsure Bank where it was moored. There is also a maritime museum with the Columbia lightship moored at its dock in Astoria, OR. And we're known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific," so it seems we have much in common with Nantucket and Cape Cod. I look forward to reading more of your articles!

    1. I wasn't aware of the west coast lightships or that you're known as the graveyard of the pacific. I'll have to do some more homework! Thanks for sharing

  10. Such interesting history you have shared, Linda! Thank you!

  11. Linda, Great History!
    I would like to add a couple of more facts you may be interested in...
    There are just over a dozen U.S. Lightships that still exist...either in disrepair, privately owned, or as museums. Three of those Lightships are retired "NANTUCKET".
    Two are privately owned by the same gentleman. The 612 , which is the one in the photo you posted. Totally restored. Her Sister, the 613, formerly the "AMBROSE" also stationed as "NANTUCKET". Both built in the early Fifites.
    The third "NANTUCKET" LV-112, built in 1936, currently is a floating Museum. She is berthed at the East Boston Shipyard & Marina. Open for tours Saturday's Spring thru Fall. Winter hours by appointment only, unless you catch Us there!
    Need to mention, in New Bedford,MA. Along the waterfront sits the national Lightship Sailors Memorial. It represents the memories of Fifty plus Lightship Sailors whom lost their lives, during Storms, Collisions, and other hazards. Remember, these vessels were anchored to mark a hazard to Mariners. They were red targets you might say.
    The Memorial consists of the Ships Bell off the "VINEYARD" Lightship, which was lost with all hands during a Storm. The Bell sits on a Granite Block, with all names engraved on the sides.
    Ron Janard
    Director / Historian USCG Lightship Sailors Asscociation
    Director. United Stated Lightship Museum, NANTUCKET LV-112