By no means the least important of our sea marks are the light-vessels which serve to indicate many outlying dangers on our coasts such as sandbanks and shoals. Not a few of these obstructions are situated at too great a distance from the shore to be served by a land lighthouse, or in too great a depth of water to admit of the erection of a screw-pile lighthouse; many again are formed of material too loose to bear the weight of a stone or iron structure, or of so shifting a nature that it becomes necessary to move the light from time to time as their position changes. Yet another purpose is served by the light-vessel in Cardigan Bay, into which there is a most subtle and dangerous indraught – a set of water from the south-westward – so that vessels working up from Liverpool or the Clyde were in constant fear of drifting too far to the eastward and thus getting on shore in the northern curve of the bay but with the lightship placed midway between the north and south horns of the curve and the chord of the arc, in water far too deep for the foundations of a lighthouse, the eastern boundary of the proper fairway is as distinctly marked as the roadway of a street.
When in 1623 and again in 1670 proposals to establish floating lights at the Nore and elsewhere were submitted to Trinity House they were received with contempt and it was not until 1732 that the first lightship was stationed at the Nore, as the waters at the junction of the Thames and Medway are named.
The success of this first lightship suggested to one, Robert Hamblin, an ingenious scheme by which he hoped to get the whole of the lighting of our coasts into his own hands. To this end he obtained a patent from the Crown authorising him to place lightships at a short distance from the shore, but had he been allowed to carry out this scheme all the existing land lighthouses would have been rendered useless. Naturally the Trinity Brethren would not consent to this infraction of their rights and they succeeded in getting Hamblin ‘s patent withdrawn. By way of compensation for the loss of his patent Hamblin was granted a lease of the Nore light-vessel for a term of sixty years at an annual rental of £100, which was so very moderate a sum that he was able to make a considerable income from the tolls he collected from ships passing up and down the estuary.
Within three months after being placed in position, the Nore lightship twice broke away from her moorings during heavy gales, and it was no doubt in part owing to the difficulty experienced in securing a good anchorage that the number of lightships did not increase more rapidly. But notwithstanding this drawback the Dudgeon, a cutter with lights suspended from the extremities of her yards, was placed off the coast of Lincolnshire in 1732. Then came the “Owers” in 1788, the “Newarp” in 1791, the “North Goodwin” in 1795, the “Sunk” in 1802, the “Galloper” in 1803, and the “Gull” in 1809.
In the year 1750 proposals were put forward for protecting the deadly Goodwins by means of lightships, but Trinity House inflicted such a crushing defeat on the projectors that it actually congratulated itself on having so effectually freed itself from the possibility of again being troubled with such tiresome suggestions. At the present day the Goodwins are amply protected by four light-vessels (1) The “South Goodwin” moored off the south-west end of the Sands, with a red hull, and showing by day a ball at the masthead and by night a group white flashing light every half-minute, thus a flash of 1 seconds in duration followed by an eclipse of 6 seconds, then a flash of 5 seconds followed by an eclipse of 17 seconds’ duration. (2) The “East Goodwin” lying a mile and a half to the east of the Sands, having an inverted triangle over a diamond on the mast and the hull painted red ; by night a white light of 1 second duration is shown every 10 seconds ; there is on board for use in thick weather a fog-siren which gives four blasts, each of 2 seconds’ duration, in quick succession every minute and also a submarine fog-bell, which, after giving six strokes is silent for 5 seconds. (3) The “Gull” lying in the fairway it has a red hull and a ball at the mast-head and shows at night four white flashes each 1 second’s duration in quick succession every 20 of seconds ; there is a hand fog reed horn giving two blasts, each of 4 seconds’ duration in quick succes- sion every two minutes. (4 ) The “North Goodwin” lying off the north end of the Sands, with a red hull and on each of her three masts a ball, that on the mizzen being 5 feet lower than that of the foremast, and 24 feet lower than that on the main she shows by night a group white-flashing light of three flashes in quick succession followed by an eclipse of 36 seconds ; her fog-siren gives two blasts (low, high) every minute, blasts and short intervals being 24 seconds each. All the Goodwin light-vessels are now connected with the shore by wireless telegraph but for life-saving purposes only.
The estuaries of the Thames, the Mersey, and the Severn, as well as many of the shallower parts of the East Coast are protected by numerous light-vessels, of which there are now seventy English, six Scotch, and eleven Irish, the cost of maintaining them during the past twelve months being £69,209, £1,273, and £18,753 respectively. The cost of an average up-to -date light-vessel is about £16,000 The fog-siren recently supplied to the “East Goodwin ” light-vessel cost £2,150.
The lighting arrangements of light-vessels have in recent times been vastly improved. In place of the old style lantern suspended from the yard-arm of the mast and containing a few small candles there is now used a lantern some 6 feet in diameter, having a copper tube in the centre capable of holding the vessel’s mast which passes through it. Fixed on a circular frame inside the lantern are powerful Argand lamps with reflectors swinging on gimbals, So that however great may be the roll and plunge of the vessel the light is always kept level and steady. With this system the lantern can be lowered on the mast so as to pass through the top of a house on the deck wherein the lamps are trimmed and filled.
A light-vessel always exhibits at night a white light at the forestay at a height of 6 feet above the rail for the purpose of showing in which direction she is riding at her station, but if she be driven from her proper position during the night, in place of the usual light a fixed red light is exhibited at each end of the vessel and a red flare shown every fifteen minutes, and if by day the balls and other distinguishing marks are struck. If for any reason the usual lights cannot be exhibited the riding light only is shown. The day-marks of Trinity ships are painted black and the watch-buoys red with the word “watch” preceded by the name of the lightship painted thereon in white letters.
When a light-vessel is used for marking a wreck the top sides are usually coloured green and the word “wreck” painted thereon in white letters during the day three balls are displayed on a yard, one at the end nearest the wreck and two, one below the other, at the other end of the yard ; by night, instead of the ordinary white riding light, three lights, placed in the same position as the balls, are shown. Light-vessels are liable to be withdrawn for repairs, and, although a spare vessel is always lying ready at the headquarters of the district, it is not always possible to replace a damaged vessel immediately.
It is not often that a lightship gets adrift, but it is a danger to which they are all subject. During the great gale of December, 1849, the “Leaman,” the “Owers,” the “Cockle Gat,” and the “Nore” light-essels all broke adrift and their lights were out for two or three nights.
In the gale of 1859 the “Warner” broke loose from her moorings off Southsea and after being driven for many miles up Channel finally went ashore at Seaford. She was shortly afterwards got afloat and towed back to her station.
Lightships ride by chains made of a peculiarly prepared and toughened iron, strong enough to hold a vessel of 600 to 700 tons (light-vessels average about 160 tons ) and these are attached to heavy mushroom-shaped anchors by a swivel in the centre. In heavy weather the strain on the anchors is relieved by paying out fathom after fathom of chain until sometimes the whole cable is in the water. On the “Seven Stones ” ship, which lies between the Scillies and the mainland, the cable is 315 fathoms in length. In common with all other lightships the “Seven Stone” has two bower anchors, which are thrown overboard the moment she is felt to be dragging her mushrooms or to have broken from her mooring. In deep-sea channels a lightship is moored by a single vertical chain only. When we consider what conditions of wind and weather these vessels have to live through, and that they are not always moored on the best holding ground or in the most sheltered position, but just in the place where their lights will be most useful, the wonder is that they do not break adrift more often than they do.
The usual dimensions of a light-vessel are Length, 80 to 114 feet ; beam, 20 to 24 feet ; depth, 13 to 15 feet ; tonnage, 150 to 280 tons. Her anchors are usually of a mushroom shape and weigh about 3 tons each, the cable being of 1-2 inch open links. The lanterns are usually lowered into the deckhouse during the day. The fog-signals are generally in form of reed-horns or sirens worked by compressed air.
At Garvel Point on the Clyde is moored an unattended light-vessel. It is 40 feet in length with a beam of 12 feet and has on board a cylinder containing a supply of gas under pressure sufficient to maintain the lights for a period of three months A somewhat similar vessel is to be seen off Calshot Castle at the entrance to Southampton Water.
Canada is far in advance of the Mother Country in the matter of lightships. A modern example of the most improved type, such as that lately. moored off the Lurcher Shoal in the Bay of Fundy, is a perfect battery of ingenious mechanisms. From the electric lights at the masthead, automatically occulted by clockwork making and breaking the current produced by a dynamo in the engine-room, to the moorings connected with powerful automatic buffers and steam windlasses to relieve the strain on her bows, she is full of interesting machinery, She is self-propelling and is provided with a Marconi telegraph instrument, a submarine bell, and a powerful fog-horn.
In earlier days lightships were generally left in charge of only one man, in course of time two men at least were left on each, but nowadays there are generally three or more. Provisions are supplied at intervals by means of a steam tender, the men being relieved at the same time. The relief men on shore are employed at the depot of the district in painting buoys, cleaning chains, and other general work in connection with the stores. Shipwrecked crews occasionally take refuge in the lightship, where they are fed and sheltered until an opportunity occurs of sending them ashore. On rare occasions a vessel’s boats have been used to rescue the crew from a vessel in distress, but the men are not encouraged in this, for it is possible they may not be able to return to their vessel should wind and tide be against them.
None but those who have been on a light-vessel can form any conception of what life on board is really like. The men have to brave the fiercest gales, tossed up and down in what is nothing more than a frail iron dish held by a couple of chains. Experienced sailors, who have been compelled to take refuge on one, aver that bad as it is to be hurled about on a tempestuous sea in a vessel at the mercy of the wind and waves, it is yet a hundred times worse to be tethered in a lightship, and yet there is no instance on record of a crew having voluntarily deserted their station even in the worst of weather.
To mark out the channels of rivers, the entrances to harbours, and the position of shoals, hollow floating buoys of wood or iron are generally employed. These buoys are of various sizes and shapes, and are painted in different colours to distinguish one from another. They are moored to the bed of the channel, river, or ocean by chains which, when fixed with due regard to the centre of flotation, will keep the buoy in an almost vertical position in all weathers. The following are the principal varieties of buoys:
1. The conical buoy, which shows the upper part of a cone above the water, is always on the star-board or right-hand side of a vessel going with the main stream or flood, or on entering a harbour or river.
2. The can or truncated cone, which shows a flat top above the water, is used on the port or left-hand side of a vessel moving as above.
3. The spherical buoy has a domed top and marks the ends of middle grounds. This variety is always distinguished by being painted with horizontal white stripes.
4. Pillar buoys have a broad base from which rises a tall central pillar. When a mast takes the place of the pillar it is called a spar buoy. A globe on the top of the spar is for use on the starboard side, a staff with a cage on the top is used on the port side ; a staff surmounted by a diamond framework denotes the outer end of middle grounds and a staff and triangle the inner ends. Buoys on the same side of an estuary, channel, or tideway are frequently distinguished by numbers, names, or letters.
5. Wreck buoys, painted green with the word “Wreck ” in large white letters, are used as their name implies, to mark the position of a wreck lying in the passage to a harbour or in the open sea. Sometimes a vessel is moored over or near a sunken wreck ; she is then generally coloured green with the word “Wreck” in white letters, and by day exhibits three balls on a yard 20 feet above the sea and by night three fixed white lights.
6. Mooring buoys are of no special shape or colour but vary in both particulars under the different authorities in whose jurisdiction they lie. When buoys are used for marking the position of submarine telegraph cables they are coloured green with the word “telegraph”‘ painted thereon in white letters.
7. Bell buoys, gas buoys, and whistle buoys are used to mark special positions on the coast or in the approaches to harbours. A bell buoy has a bell fixed to the upper part of the superstructures, and unless the sea should be absolutely calm, its position is rendered audible whether it be visible or not. It has been suggested that an electric current would be a more reliable agent than the wave-motion for producing a continuous and regular sounding of the bell. Some buoys are furnished with a kind of undershot water-wheel which is kept in motion as long as any tide or current passes through the lower part. For the illumination of coast buoys, coal, or other inflammable gas is used ; a buoy 5 feet by 3 will contain sufficient compressed gas to keep a steady flame burning for a month or more at a time.
An excellent form of marking buoy or floating beacon is that invented by Capt. George Peacock. From its peculiar form and construction and the manner in which it is moored it is able to rise over the crest of the waves in the heaviest gale and strongest tides. It is capable of holding from ten to twelve persons with ease in case of contiguous shipwreck and of affording a safe temporary refuge. The hull, which is of sheet iron, is 10 feet long, 7 feet broad, and 3 feet deep, and semi-oval in shape. The deck, a perfect oval, is convex, with a man-hole and cover in the centre. To the bottom is fitted an iron keel weighing 250 lbs. and this serves to keep the buoy steady to the tide and also gives it stability. Iron uprights 9 feet in length are fixed to the deck and are braced horizontally by two rows of iron rods. Fixed beneath the top of the structure is a large bell with four swinging clappers hanging round it from the platform and striking the outside, while the centre clapper has its stem below the hammer elongated with iron rod to 5 feet, terminating in a wind -cross of thin sheet-iron, So as to ring the bell with the least breeze when the water is too smooth to affect the clappers. At the apex of the buoy -beacon is a spindle carrying a pyramidal speculum, 10 inches in angle, which, revolving freely as the buoy moves, reflects the rays of the sun or moon, or of an adjacent lighthouse if there be one. The reflected flashes of the sun’s rays are visible on a ship’s deck at a distance of seven to eight miles.
The system of buoyage in use in different countries varies considerably.
Mariners cannot rely on buoys and floating beacons or even lightships always being in their exact position, or on the light on gas buoys being shown, or on the regular working of occulting buoys, as the clockwork apparatus is liable to get out of order. In a strong tideway or in heavy seas the buoys put so heavy a strain on their moorings as sometimes to break adrift at the time when most needed, so that a ship should, as far as possible be navigated by bearings on angles of fixed objects on shore rather than by buoys or floating beacons.