Friday, July 15, 2011

The Lightship

As one walks alongside the East River in Lower Manhattan, the lightship Ambrose1 comes into view.  After a long and honorable career of sentinel duty outside the entrance to New York Harbor, she now reposes quietly as a museum piece at the South Street Seaport.  On her decks and in her compartments, mute placards and friendly tour guides tell her story to all who come aboard.  A small vessel with minimal space for her crew, she makes an impression on her visitors.  She had been a working vessel, a service vessel, not a luxury liner or a yacht, and this shows in the extreme simplicity of her accommodations.  In fact, the initial view of her from the street reveals a hull that seems very small and confining, perhaps even fragile-looking, for extended service on the open ocean.  Nonetheless, the Ambrose is an attractive vessel with a colorful and eye-catching paint scheme.  One cannot miss her.

Ships have always fascinated me, of course, but lightships especially so.  They are a very different type of vessel.  They are not merchant ships.  They are not naval ships.  They do not carry cargo, make long voyages, or conduct military maneuvers.  They do not live lives of their own, so to speak.  Instead, they exist solely to serve other ships.  They remain anchored at their assigned stations as other vessels come and go.  At night they display their distinctive light signals, in effect serving as floating lighthouses.  In the daytime their bright red hulls with their names painted in huge white letters on them stand out as identifying beacons to passing ships.  They were designed to be clearly visible, and they are.   

For centuries, lightships have kept station at important waypoints and next to danger areas along the world’s shipping lanes.  Famous lightships have included the Goodwins warning of the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel, the Borkum Riff guarding the traffic lanes in the North Sea, and the Ambrose marking the entrance to the Ambrose Channel leading into New York.  In these and in many other important locations, lightships have long warned of dangers, identified channels, and literally lit the way for passing merchantmen.  Embarked on lifelong service projects, lightships have been the “light that shineth in darkness” (John 1:5) for those sailing across the blackness of the sea.

The Ambrose is a good case in point.  In the very early 1900s, a shipping channel leading from the Narrows, the waterway between Brooklyn and Staten Island, to the naturally deep water of the open Atlantic was dredged to a depth of 40 feet with a width of 2000 feet.  At the time, these dimensions were enormous.  As the size of merchant ships and the volume of traffic increased, however, these dimensions were able to accommodate the growth.  A lightship was anchored at the seaward end of the new channel to indicate the location of the deep water for arriving vessels.  Both the channel and the lightship derive their name from John Wolfe Ambrose, a prominent businessman who convinced a skeptical Congress to make the necessary financial investments in the improvement of New York Harbor.  This improvement included several dredging projects, of which the largest bears Mr. Ambrose’s name and stands as his memorial.2 

From the time of the light station’s establishment, a lightship was anchored there almost continuously.  On the occasions when the Ambrose needed to return to port for her annual drydocking, a relief vessel took her place temporarily.  Otherwise, the Ambrose remained at anchor at her station where she served the navigational needs of other vessels by flashing her characteristic light signal at night and displaying her distinctive bright red hull with white letters by day.

While this job sounds simple enough, it was not without its risks.  In heavy fog on June 24, 1960, the lightship Relief, substituting for the Ambrose during her annual overhaul, was flashing her light signal and sounding her foghorn when the freighter Green Bay collided with her.  The lightship sank; the freighter remained afloat.  Most importantly, the lightship’s crewmen were all rescued.3

Later in the 1960s, although not because of this accident, the Coast Guard undertook to replace most of the lightships with fixed light towers.  These structures were built on steel piles driven into the seabed.  Equipped with lights, foghorns, helicopter decks, and crew accommodations, these structures would last longer than lightships and cost less to operate and maintain.  Furthermore, they would not swing on an anchor chain but stand immovable, thus making them more accurate navigational markers than the lightships.  But they would serve the same purpose.  Like the lightships, these new light towers existed solely to serve others.

Once again, the job sounds simple but it had its risks.  Following its construction, the new Ambrose Light Tower was placed in service with a six-man crew on August 23, 1967.4  It was designed and built to withstand a hurricane, but in October of 1996, the tanker Aegeo collided with the tower and damaged it beyond repair.5  There were no human casualties, however, because the tower had been automated and its crew reassigned on March 15, 1988.6

After removing the wreckage of the tower, the Coast Guard built a new structure, also fully automated and unmanned.  Performing the same function, this new tower served until November 3, 2007, when the tanker Axel Spirit collided with it and damaged it beyond repair.  The following summer this second tower’s remains were dismantled and removed.  Deciding against yet another rebuilding, the Coast Guard replaced the Ambrose Light with a large buoy.7

Whether the method was towers or ships or a buoy, the Ambrose Light has for over a century diligently and at great risk to itself served the needs of others.  And this is just one light.  In their day, many lightships were positioned along both American coasts as well as in Canadian and European waters.  Merchant ships, fishing boats, and naval vessels all depended on them.  Since the conversion to towers was implemented, only a few lightships remain on station.

These good vessels have come to different ends.  Some were scrapped.  Some were sunk.  Others live on.  Like the Ambrose in New York, the Chesapeake serves as a floating museum in Baltimore.  The Frying Pan works as a party boat, moored to a pier on the West Side of Manhattan.  One Nantucket operates as a floating hotel in Boston.  Another Nantucket is moored to a pier in Oyster Bay, Long Island, waiting to be refurbished as an exhibit in a waterfront park.8

These lightships were a lot like some people.  They all had different identifying characteristics such as names and distinctive light signals.  They lived to serve others, and they did a lot of good in their lives.  Most of the good they did never became widely known, though, and often times the good they did was really the prevention of something bad.  For example, a merchant ship seeing the Ambrose Light knew where the channel was and therefore steered the correct course and did not run aground.  Like the lightships, the dangers and the waypoints near which the vessels stood guard were all different, too.  Shoals, reefs, rocks, channel entrances, traffic separation lanes, and junction points have always been of critical importance to the safe movement of ships.  Their location must be made known or property damage, injury, and loss of life will inevitably result.  For centuries, lightships, and more recently their replacement towers, have selflessly served in this important capacity.  And some of them, both lightships and light towers, have gone to their deaths while serving.

In the long history of Christianity, many people have served their fellowmen as faithfully as the Ambrose and others like her have served their fellow ships.  The life of the Savior as it is described in the New Testament stands as a shining example of service to others.  During his time here on Earth, our Lord healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the bereaved, taught his doctrine, and invited all to come into the safe haven of his Gospel.  He called ordinary people to come unto him, learn his teachings, follow his example, and carry on his work.  His disciples did not need to be politically influential or militarily powerful; they needed only to be converted and have a willingness to serve.  Like the Ambrose, these good people rarely made the history books or the headlines.  Whether they were laymen or clergymen or members of religious societies, the vast majority of them led unremarkable lives and sought no earthly rewards.  Despite the unfortunate divisions in Christianity, most of its adherents have long had much more in common than not.  These common characteristics have included a love of the Lord and a desire to do his work, with some disciples even sacrificing their lives in the process.

It is much the same today, although with the ordinances of the temple restored to the Earth, there is even more opportunity to serve both the living and the dead.  Like the Ambrose, the temple serves as a beacon, but to those on both sides of the veil.  Once again, the work is done largely by ordinary people who simply love the Lord and want to help others come unto him.  One need not be rich and famous in order to carry out the Lord’s work in the temple.  On the contrary, one needs only a sincere testimony of the importance of the temple ordinances and a demonstrated willingness to live one’s life in a manner befitting a temple-attending Latter-day Saint.  This is a high standard, but one which all people are capable of attaining.  Likewise, the crewmen of the Ambrose needed to meet certain standards in order to perform their service.  They enabled the safe passages for seamen on both their outbound and homebound voyages with visual and sound signals.  Similarly, temple personnel mark the safe way for all people on their homebound journeys to their eternal home and reunion with their Heavenly Father.  The temple was built for this very purpose.  Like the Ambrose, it exists to serve others.  Perhaps more accurately, the temple gives us the opportunity to serve others.

King Benjamin said it so well: “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).  The Lord himself said it even more succinctly: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16).  Whether serving at a light station or serving in the temple, we must be “steadfast and immovable” and “always abounding in good works” (Mosiah 5:15) in order to bring everyone, the children of the sea and the children of the Lord, safely home.

1 Technically, “Ambrose” is the name of the light station, not the lightship.  This lightship’s official designation is LV 87/WAL 512.  In a decades-long career, the same light vessel could serve at several different light stations and would have the appropriate station’s name painted on her hull during her time of service there.  Practically, however, the ships came to be known by the names of the stations at which they served, and the name of the light station was informally transferred to the lightship itself.
2 Author unknown, “Ambrose Channel,” original publication unknown, 1921, at
3 Milton Bracker, “Ambrose Lightship Sunk in Fog,” The New York Times, June 25, 1960, p. 1 & 9.
4 Homer Bigart, “Ambrose Lightship Blinks Her Last Lonely Signal,” The New York Times, August 24, 1967, p. 1 & 75.
5 Sue Clark, “Ambrose Light Tower Destroyed in Collision,” December 6, 2007, at http://lighthouse–
6 Dennis Hevesi, “Men Leave But the Light Shines On,” The New York Times, March 16, 1988, at
7 Sue Clark, op. cit., and Associated Press, “Staten Island: Ship Damages Light Tower,” The New York Times, November 5, 2007, at
8 On May 10 and 11, 2010, this Nantucket was towed to a shipyard in East Boston, Massachusetts, where she is to be refurbished.  See

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