Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Lightship Columbia

Soon, in the shadow, I discerned a light, pale and half discolored by the mists.  It was shining from about a mile away.
"A floating lighthouse," said a voice close to me.  I turned and saw the captain.  "It is the floating light of Suez."
                                  from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I can't imagine anything more comforting to a sailor than that first glimpse of light on a dark, rolling sea.  He now knows where he is.  He can avoid the danger.  Make his way safely into port.

Lighthouses have always been on my itinerary when I travel.  They are, of course, beacons of the past.  Many are now museums or better yet, bed and breakfasts.  But a lightship?  I had never had the chance to see one until my visit to the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.  The Lightship Columbia is moored behind the museum and can be toured as part of the museum's entrance fee.  The ship was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1979 when replaced by an automated navigational buoy.
A lightship is a floating lighthouse.  It remains at anchor in all weather, warning mariners of reefs or in the case of the Columbia, the dangerous sandbar that ships need to cross as they enter the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the last active lightships on the west coast.  Moored six miles off the entrance, her bright light, foghorn and radio beacon guided small fishing trawlers and large freighters over the most dangerous river bar in the United States.  "Crossing the bar," we hear this term a lot around here.  It is spoken with the same deep respect as "Rounding Cape Horn."
I have a tendency to romanticize life inside a lighthouse or on a vessel at sea, but life was far from ideal.   For the men who lived on this floating vessel, their days were either terrifying or extremely boring.  The delivery of mail and supplies were highlights of their existence.

But to those mariners approaching the "The Graveyard of the Pacific," the Columbia was a welcome sight.  On sunny days and on foggy ones.  In their eyes, the men on this floating lighthouse were heroes, saviors and true luminaries.

And I doubt if Captain Nemo would have gazed upon an automated buoy with the same reverence as the Suez floating lighthouse.  The romance, real or imagined, is no longer there.

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of a lightship and I enjoyed reading about this one. Lighthouses are certainly places of intrigue for me too. There's a well-known poster of a lighthouse being engulfed by the sea. It makes me tingle. Stalwarts, beacons, havens.