Lightship No. 83 was one of five ships built by New York
Shipbuilding Co. in Camden, NJ - along with No. 78, 79, 80,
and 81. The ship was 135 feet long, with whale oil lamps and a
steam engine fired by coal. The ship was fitted with a fog
signal (a steam whistle) and two mushroom anchors.
No. 83 was completed in 1904 and assigned to California. The ship sailed around
South America along with No. 76, arriving in San Francisco
on 1905. No. 83 was assigned to Blunts Reef, three
miles north of Cape Mendocino. She was blown off
station due to inclement weather in 1906, 1907, and again in 1915.
She was also taken off station after being rammed by the schooner
Del Norte in 1920. The damage required No. 83 to return
to San Francisco for repairs.
In 1916 the steamer Bear ran aground on Cape Mendocino.
Survivors were taken aboard the lightship - 155 in all. The crew
of 11 looked after the passengers until another vessel arrived the next day.
Several improvements were made during the ship's tenure
at Blunts Reef. In 1908, the whale oil lamps were replaced
by kerosene. A wireless was installed in 1918. A radio beacon
was installed in 1923.
The most unusual addition was the submarine bell. This was installed
in 1906 and removed in 1930. The bell was submerged 25-30 feet below the
vessel and struck with a set frequency. A vessel equipped with
underwater sensors could detect the signal. Later, vessels could
time the intervals of signals from the submarine bell and
radio beacon to calculate the distance to the lightship.
The ship was transferred to the San Francisco station in 1930.
Modifications to the ship continued. In the 1930's, the
ship received an electric light - a 375 mm lens housing
a 1000W bulb and 300W backup light. New boilers were installed
in 1934. A diaphone fog signal replaced the steam whistle in
1936. New deckhouses were built in 1937.
Finally, radar was added in 1945. The ship's number
changed as well. The Coast Guard redesignated the ship
from LV 83 to WAL 508, and later to WLV 508.
The biggest change took place during World War Two. The
lightship was refitted as an examination vessel for ships
entering the San Francisco Bay. The ship was fitted with
a 30"/50 gun, two fifty caliber machine guns, and depth
charges. The crew complement increased from eleven to forty.
The only apparent "action" the vessel saw was firing
a warning shot off the bow of a large vessel. The vessel
ignored the lightship and sped into the bay.
The ship was apparently
the liner Ile De France, carrying wounded from
the Pacific back to San Francisco.
In 1951, the lightship began its final tour of duty as
a Relief vessel, occupying stations in the Pacific
Northwest when the regular vessels needed to return
to port for refit. The ship served at three stations -
the Columbia River, Umatilla Reef (11 miles southwest
of Cape Flattery), and Swiftsure (off the mouth of
San Juan De Fuca, 22 miles north of Umatilla Reef).
After 55 years of service at all five light stations on
the west coast, the ship was decommissioned. The propeller
was removed and displayed at Duwamish Ship Repair
in Seattle. The ship was placed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and
designated a National Landmark in 1989.
Today, the ship is being restored at the Northwest Seaport
in Seattle, and has adopted the name Swiftsure.
"Sentinels of the Sea" by Ronald R. Burke.
This article was posted on a storyboard at the Northwest Seaport
during our visit.