New Life For The Nantucket Lightship -September/October 2012
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Jim Powers
When the Nantucket Lightship LV-112 was sent to drydock late last year for the first time since 1991 for an extensive survey in preparation for a proper restoration, Robert Mannino held his breath.
The president of the United States Lightship Museum – which acquired the vessel in 2009 – had no idea what to expect, and braced himself for the worst possible news: that the 148- foot, 1,050-ton boat that once stood sentinel off the coast of Nantucket was too far gone to repair, and would not be able to one day become a museum paying homage to the days when manned vessels and not inanimate buoys served as floating lighthouses off America’s shores.
He need not have worried. Despite the fact that the lightship had sat for seven years at a pier in Oyster Bay, N.Y., slowly deteriorating in conditions both fair and foul, it had been well-designed, well-built in 1936 – its steel was top-quality battleship-grade metal, and well-cared-for during its years in service to the Coast Guard.
“Luckily, she was still in good shape, good enough that the surveyor said we could move forward with the restoration. There was only one place where we had to put in a small patch. Other than that, we had to repair some of the rivets. We scraped off over eight tons of marine growth and pumped out all the contaminated oil in the tanks, had them inspected and cleaned, and put her back in the water,” said Mannino, a marketing and public-relations consultant who lives in South Hampton, N.H.
“She was then relettered, and shortly after we got back to berth, a company based in the shipyard where we’re staying that refurbishes ships and oil tanks, they completely sandblasted the weather deck, the masts and superstructure. The ship looks virtually new.”
Today, the vessel is back in its home waters, berthed in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in East Boston at the end of the Boston Harborwalk. Its exterior work is nearly 95 percent complete, and the lightship is open at least one day a week for public tours, and at other times by appointment. On the Fourth of July, it hosted about 60 supporters and former crew members, who had a front-row seat to the Independence Day festivities on Boston Harbor. A crew from Emerson College also visited in July to scout the lightship for a film project.
The Lightship Museum has raised about $230,000 so far in private and corporate donations to do the initial repair work, and Mannino estimates it will take another $850,000 to make the ship fully operational. He also hopes to eventually secure a multi-million-dollar endowment to provide for the vessel’s future maintenance and upkeep.
“Fundraising and also trying to find more volunteers have been our biggest challenge,” he said. “We’re an all-volunteer organization. We estimate if the fundraising goes reasonably well, it will be another two years before it’s fully operational. Even at that point, we’ll probably only take it out two or three times a year. It will be tied up most of the year as a floating learning center. We want to use it for educational programs.”
The LV-112, the largest lightship ever built and a national historic landmark, was towed into Boston Harbor May 11, 2010 after knocking around the Eastern Seaboard for the better part of the last 35 years.
For nearly four decades starting in the late 1930s, the LV-112 stood sentinel 50 miles off the southeast coast of Nantucket, marking the shoals that threatened to tear the guts from freighters and cruise ships bound for New York, Boston and Philadelphia. But after its decommissioning in 1975, the vessel – one of only three Nantucket lightships still afloat – fell on hard times, and passed among a number of nonprofit organizations hoping to restore and protect the floating piece of history. Most recently, it slowly deteriorated at a dock in Oyster Bay, Long Island until October 2010, when Mannino’s United States Lightship Museum, a newly-formed group, purchased the vessel for $1 and announced plans to return it to New England to serve as a floating maritime museum on the East Boston waterfront.
Mannino’s group purchased the LV-112 from the National Lighthouse Museum, which acquired the vessel in 2002 and had hoped to make it the centerpiece of a planned museum complex on Staten Island.
But a year later, it was sailed to Oyster Bay to participate in a waterfront festival and never left, a victim of the political climate and lack of funding in New York following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Jerry Roberts, a board member of the National Lighthouse Museum.
“Our goal was to find it a good home, and we believe we did that. I’ve been involved with this ship for almost 15 years with different organizations. It’s not easy to find a home for a 150-foot ship. We looked very hard for almost two years to find the proper steward. These folks really seem to want to do what’s right for her,” he said at the time of the sale. “Nothing is ever guaranteed. They still have to raise the money to repair it, but they seem dedicated to doing just that.”
The low price tag came with a number of conditions, most importantly that the vessel be forever kept open to the public as a tangible reminder of the men who spent solitary weeks – and even months – at sea protecting their ocean-going brethren and the ships they sailed.
Mannino has no problem with that.
“I’ve always had sort of an affinity for lightships. Since it was a national historic landmark, I didn’t want to see anything happen to it. It’s really the most famous lightship in the world. It’s also ironic in that it’s maybe the most famous lightship, but also the most orphaned. Our plan is to continue it as a museum and an educational institution, to open it to the public, especially for students, and really have it as a lightship museum, a maritime museum.”
LONG ROAD AHEAD
There is still, however, much work to be done.
“We got it just in the nick of time. The scrappers were out there looking at it and bidding on it before we assumed ownership. To be honest with you, I don’t think the ship could have withstood not being drydocked anymore. It wasn’t leaking, but when we pressure-washed the hull, it blew out a couple of rivets. That’s not good. Everything else was OK. I knew we couldn’t have gone through the winter,” Mannino said.
“We have a long way to go. The next phase is really doing the interior of the ship. We have a lot of electrical lighting being restored, and we need to get the power systems back on-line to service the engine and the electric motors. We want to get the plumbing and heating up and running. In the winter, we’ve been using space heaters. We need to refurbish the fire-safety systems,” he said.
An eight-cylinder Cooper-Bessemer diesel engine was installed in the lightship in 1960, and while it still runs, it needs to be serviced, along with vessel’s auxiliary engines, Mannino said.
“Cooper-Bessemer, now Cameron International, is one of our biggest donors now. When we’re ready to start, they’re going to send up some mechanics to work on the engines,” he said.
“We’ve received a lot of in-kind donations like that. Sherwin-Williams has donated a lot of the paint. The Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, we get free dockage there. We couldn’t be doing this without things like that.”
The LV-112 has changed little since last seeing Nantucket waters in the mid-1980s after being decommissioned in 1975 and then delivered to the island from Boston by a group of Nantucketers affectionately referred to as “The Dirty Dozen.”
The men were led by Captain Mike Todd, a Nantucket selectman who recruited the makeshift crew after learning that Atlantic City, N.J., which had purchased the Nantucket lightship at a government surplus auction, would be willing to exchange it for the (also surplus) Boston lightship if they delivered it to New Jersey. They included Todd and Dan Kelliher, Pete Grant, Les Eldridge, Kenny Holdgate, Bobby Allen, Richard Hardy, Andy Docca, Dr. Roy Stewart, Dennis Dias, Richard Mack and Jeff Marks.
After safely delivering the Boston vessel to New Jersey, they flew home to Nantucket and later brought the Nantucket lightship from Boston to the island under the command of Capt. Robertson Dinsmore, where it was run by the Nantucket Historical Association for nearly a decade before gradually falling into disrepair and debarking for a semi-permanent home as a floating museum in Portland, Maine in 1985.
From there, it ended up at the Intrepid Air-Sea-Space Museum in New York City, before being acquired by The HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1996. It was officially acquired by the Lighthouse Museum in 2002.
Officially known as LV-112, the lightship was built in 1936 in Wilmington, Del. to replace the vessel sliced in half and sunk by the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic. Aside from serving three years as a medical-examination ship during World War II and two years as a relief vessel, the LV-112 spent her entire career marking the treacherous shoals off Nantucket’s east end.
In all, 179 lightships were built between 1820 and 1952. At one time, 56 lightships were stationed at various locations around the United States, before all were eventually replaced by signal buoys. Today, only 17 still exist. Eight of them are National Historic Landmarks.
LV-112 was built to the specifications of a battleship with a hull made of thick riveted armor plate, heavier than all other U.S. lightships and with a high degree of compartmentalization. It served longer than any other U.S. lightship – 39 years – on the Nantucket Station, the last of the U.S. lightship stations to be discontinued.
LV-112 was the last lightship seen by vessels departing the United States and the first beacon seen entering U.S. waters.
The vessel is one of only three Nantucket lightships still afloat: Former state Sen. Bill Golden bought LV-612 on the Internet auction site eBay for $126,100 in 2001 and sunk millions more into her conversion into an opulent floating vacation home. After spending chunks of several summers in Nantucket Harbor and winters in Boston, she spent two seasons in lower Manhattan as a charter vessel. She’s been based in Vineyard Haven and Newport, R.I. since 2009.
The 128-foot LV-613, owned by Jack Baker, a retired Acton businessman who made a small fortune in medical instruments, is currently tied up in a Wareham shipyard, where a caretaker maintains her along with a fleet of other vessels.
The U.S. Lightship Museum is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and is currently seeking donations for the restoration and preservation of the LV- 112. For more information or to contribute, visit http://www.NantucketLightshipLV-112.org