November 18, 2013

Two Nantucket Lightship Veterans Recall Their Years Onboard

As we prepare to wrap up our National Treasures project work on the Nantucket Lightship/LV-112, which now has long-term home with the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina in East Boston, it seemed appropriate to take one last look at the amazing work done by the sailors on this floating lighthouse.

Rebecca Harris, a field officer in our Boston office, spoke to two veterans of the Lightship: Peter Brunk, who was captain in the early 1970s, and Richard (Dick) Arnold, who served in the mid-1950s. She asked them about their best and worst memories -- and unsurprisingly, as the Northeast heads out of hurricane season and into winter, bad weather on the shoals off New England’s coast was not a favorite.

Richard (Dick) Arnold aboard the Nantucket Lightship/LV-112

Richard (Dick) Arnold aboard the Nantucket Lightship

What were some of the hardest parts about living and working on a lightship?

Arnold: Fog was the worst because it meant you had to run the fog horn. To run the fog horn, the air compressors had to run. They were really loud and vibrated the ship. It would wake you up out of a sound sleep. And the fog horn was deafening. Also, the tides on the shoals would run like a son of a gun and would make the whole ship heave.

Brunk: In winter the weather was horrible -- you’d often get the equivalent of lake effect snow. It wouldn't be snowing on land, but would be stormy at sea. Once, it snowed for 14 days and 14 nights straight. The wind was blowing so that it didn’t accumulate on deck, but it just kept snowing. Sometimes the weather would be so horrible that the relief ship couldn’t get out and we’d have to wait until the weather improved.

News coverage of Nantucket Lightship/LV-112 after it was damaged by Hurricane Edna.

News coverage of the Nantucket Lightship's return after Hurricane Edna.

What was it like to be onboard during storms, especially hurricanes?

Arnold (who was onboard for Hurricane Edna in 1954): The winds were blowing at least 115 mph. The anemometer [wind gauge] broke at that point, so we didn't know how high the wind went, but we saw the sea getting bigger and bigger. A huge rogue wave was coming. The force of the water blew out four of the portholes and water surged into the pilot house. If I had been standing in front of one of the portholes that blew out I figure my head would have been cut off. I’m thankful I wasn't in front of one when it blew.

Brunk: It was rough. For example, my father passed away in March 1971, and just before then I was supposed to bring the Nantucket Lightship back to station while my father was ailing, but there was a storm brewing. I was worried because I wanted to be able to get back in case something happened with my father. The storm was bad, big Nor'easter with winds at 60 and 70 knots. Several ships nearby were in trouble and were seeking help. The Coast Guard tried sending a helicopter, cutters were afraid to go, and I couldn’t get off for my father’s funeral. The storm lasted for four or five days -- worse than a hurricane.

Historical photo of the Nantucket Lightship/LV-112

photo by: U.S. Coast Guard

Historical photo of Nantucket Lightship/LV-112

What are some of your favorite memories of life on board?

Arnold: In 1955, I got married on one of my leaves, and for the occasion they gave me some extra time. For the official reason for the extra time, they sent me to motion projector school, which got me 10 extra days at home. After you were trained you were the one assigned to bringing back movies to the boat when you returned from leave and for showing them. At the time it was real film -- you learned how to splice the film, repair film and the projectors, etc.

Sometimes we would exchange coffee with fishermen for scallops. I loved the scallops. As a fisherman [before and after joining the Coast Guard], I knew just how to cook them. And I even liked them raw! Couldn't get any fresher!

Brunk: They used to have beer and pizza on “hump day,” halfway through the two week shift. Called it happy hour. If the weather was bad and the relief crew didn't get out, sometimes we had the relief crew’s beer too.

We used to get movies, originally 14 movies per shift, but I managed to convince them to give the ship 28 movies a month, so we often watched two movies a day. Really good movies we’d watch a few times. I probably saw every movie released in 1971!

The Lightship is now well into its next phase of life as a museum and interactive education center operated by the United States Lightship Museum (USLM). As part of this process, the nonprofit USLM is working on restoring the interior of the ship and accepting donations to help that work along.

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More