The Nantucket, still shining its light
Since before the Civil War, transatlantic navigators heading for New England would search the horizon for a glimpse of the one sure thing that would confirm their location and warn of Nantucket Shoals, the most notorious shoal areas in North American navigable waters. From 1854 until 1983 lightships were stationed at locations up to 50 miles offshore to mark the shifting sands of this infamous maritime graveyard.
These ships were built to withstand the horrendous conditions that can occur in these offshore waters - hurricane winds with 60-plus-foot seas - and manned by the stoutest of seafaring souls who maintained the light and risked their lives in unimaginable danger to effect rescues. These ships and the men who worked them make one of the most engaging chapters of our maritime heritage and offer insight into what men can do to perform a service of paramount importance to those who traverse the sea.
Over the years there have been 12 lightships specifically built for the rigors of the Nantucket station. Of the three remaining, two are inoperable, leaving the Nantucket as the only fully operational lightship.
In 2000, West Falmouth-based environmentalist and attorney Bill Golden and his wife, Kristen, bid $126,000 on eBay, and became the owners of the Nantucket (officially WLV-612), which was lying in disrepair in Quincy Bay. Once they recovered from the shock of ownership, they set to performing a major refit and overhaul of the lightship that from 1975 to 1983 stood watch over the Nantucket south shoals south of Nantucket.
Gregarious, informal, and very accessible, Mr. Golden explains the challenges of first having to clean out, then replace the vessel's working systems. The ship was brought back to fully operational status with a complete renewal of all systems including the very specialized lights and gongs and horns that were a functional part of daily existence for the ship on station.
The Spartan pilothouse has the original engine room bell system, the large bronze handle that signaled the engineer full ahead to full astern, and all propulsion orders in between. The great wheel has a large gauge registering the rudder angle. The thick windows forward and round portlights to the sides while not giving the best all around visibility, offer security in the worst of conditions.
Also totally restored is the rescue boat Relief that was so critical in the ship's mission. The ship is as she has always appeared to the sailor's eye on the horizon, bright red with the name Nantucket painted in huge white letters on the side. She still has capacity to shine the famous beacons from atop her masts and sound the horn in fog. Looking at her, one would hardly guess what luxurious accommodations are contained within.
Under Ms. Golden's design and direction, the interior of the ship, once stark and utilitarian, was transformed into what can only be described five-star elegant. The galley is a chef's dream with all the modern conveniences and space to create meals to be served in the large, gracious dining room. There are three separate well-appointed lounge areas for private conferences or social gatherings, and five commodious private staterooms with all the comforts of a fine hotel and the necessary systems to maintain comfort for any period of time.
After two years of work and refitting, the Goldens moved aboard and took on the responsibility of finding Nantucket a homeport. It has been a continuing odyssey with extended stays in Boston, Newport, Nantucket, Greenwich, Conn., and Manhattan. While the Nantucket has a personal mooring in Nantucket harbor, the Goldens are considering a long-time commitment in Vineyard Haven harbor, and the possibility of making Vineyard Haven its homeport.
In this day and age where we are practically projected forward by our electronic gizmos, phones, and pocket-sized computers and never out of touch with the modern world, here is a place that was once one of the loneliest stations on the planet, now a peaceful option of another purpose. The Goldens are making their historic site available for weekly charters ($5,000 per day) or for a summer dockside vacation rental ($2,500 per day). Contact 617-905-9540 or visit Nantucketlightship.com.
In the meantime, the Goldens are patient and having a grand time. Their seven-year-old son Braden took his first steps aboard ship. They have entertained notables of industry, movie stars, musicians and persons of global import with the same grace and aplomb they welcomed this raggedy waterfront newshound.
Seaver Jones writes the monthly column Breakwater News for The Times.