Floating Lighthouses: Lightvessels and Lightships

Light Ship #51 at Sandy Hook, c.1890-99.
Light Ship #51 at Sandy Hook, c.1890-99. | Source

The Need For Lightvessels

Floating lighthouses were used in hazardous waters where traditional lighthouses could not be constructed, whether due to deep waters, shifting sands, mud or seabed ridges and other reasons. These were ships that had a powerful light on a tall mast and which were securely moored in designated positions. They were more commonly referred to as “lightvessels”, though in the US, they were called “lightships”.

Lightvessels had to have two primary characteristics: A light sufficiently strong enough to be seen as needed and moored securely enough to withstand the severest weather. In case one broke its moorings, the crew's immediate and foremost responsibility was to extinguish the light so as not to lure other ships onto shoals.

Built in 1951 as lightvessel no. XI, for Trinity House Lighthouse Service, by Philip & Son Ltd in Dartmouth, England. Now a restaurant in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Built in 1951 as lightvessel no. XI, for Trinity House Lighthouse Service, by Philip & Son Ltd in Dartmouth, England. Now a restaurant in Rotterdam, Netherlands. | Source
"Das Feuerschiff" or "Trinity House LV13" (Lightvessel 13) - originally a British Lightship, functioning as a museum, hotel, restaurant etc in the harbour of Hamburg (Germany).
"Das Feuerschiff" or "Trinity House LV13" (Lightvessel 13) - originally a British Lightship, functioning as a museum, hotel, restaurant etc in the harbour of Hamburg (Germany). | Source

A Short History

The Romans may have used fire beacons placed on ships, but the first “modern” lightvessel was invented by Robert Hamblin and moored at the mouth of the River Thames in England in 1732. Since that time, all lighthouses and lightvessels in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar have been under the authority of the Corporation of Trinity House in London. By 1819, England had nine lightvessels in service. These were small, wooden ships, often bought from the Dutch and converted to lightvessels, which usually had to be towed into position. The first lights were candle-powered or utilized lamps that burned sperm whale oil.

As time went by, more improvements were added. The lamps were fitted with Fresnel lenses, a very efficient and lightweight lens also used in lighthouses. Iron and steel hulls were introduced, especially designed to reduce rolling and pounding. The introduction of steam and diesel power allowed lightvessels to be self-propelled and power more effective electric lights. Besides maintaining the light, crews also recorded passing ships, observed weather and tidal data over decades and even performed rescues. Warning bells or foghorns were sometimes added. Even later, some had helipads installed so helicopters could resupply them. Lightships around the world generally share a common paint scheme including a red hull with identification markings of its position prominently painted white on its sides.

Lightvessels have been used around the world. Countries that used them include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Calshot Spit Lightship
Calshot Spit Lightship | Source
Light vessel (Feuerschiff) Amrumbank was decommissioned in 1983 and converted into a maritime museum and restaurant in Emden, Germany. Painted on its side is the Amrumbank's last post before retirement: "DeutscheBuch", or "German Bight/Bay".
Light vessel (Feuerschiff) Amrumbank was decommissioned in 1983 and converted into a maritime museum and restaurant in Emden, Germany. Painted on its side is the Amrumbank's last post before retirement: "DeutscheBuch", or "German Bight/Bay". | Source
The unmanned Lightship FS 3 GB (German Bight Western Approach)
The unmanned Lightship FS 3 GB (German Bight Western Approach) | Source

Fading Away: No Longer Cost-Effective

As technology and construction techniques improved, many lightvessels were actually replaced by lighthouses. Much later, large automated buoys were created, which were much cheaper to maintain. For example, the British lightships cost around £30,000 annually in 1974, while a buoy cost £3,000 . A large number of lightvessels still exist around the world but are out of service and are moored in harbors as tourist attractions or museums or have been converted to floating restaurants and clubs. Most of the lightvessels in service are British (though there is also at least one German vessel in use). All those in service are automated and have no crews. The eight British lightvessels, which also act as weather stations are:

  • Channel Light Vessel Automatic – in the English channel

  • F3 Lightvessel – in the middle of the English Channel, east of Ramsgate

  • East Goodwin Lightvessel - Goodwin Sands, six miles off the tip of Kent

  • Greenwich Lightvessel – off the coast of East Sussex, on the Prime Meridian

  • Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic – in the English Channel, in the Strait of Dover

  • Sevenstones Lightship – moored off the Sevenstones Reef, 10 miles northeast of the Isles of Scilly

  • Sunk Lightvessel – in the Thames Estuary

  • Varne Lightvessel – moored in the Varne Bank, nine miles southwest of Dover

Light Vessel 22 Towed into River Wear October 27, 2011

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Comments 11 comments

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

How very interesting! Thanks for answering my question with a hub. Voted up, useful and interesting.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

And thank you for asking the question-- and the vote-ups.


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

I had never heard of lightships and was surprised to see they started to see use in the 18th century. Voted interesting and up!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Natashalh, I have a confession to make: I'd never heard of them either until Peggy W asked about them. It was fun research. Thanks for the comment and the votes!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

Wow, this is so fascinating! I had no idea that ships had been used as dedicated beacons before, though it does make perfect sense that they would be. Lightships and lightvessels just SOUND cool, don't they?? Thanks for clueing me in.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for the comment, Simone. I'd love to have dinner with my wife in Copenhagen on a converted lightvessel.


ImKarn23 profile image

ImKarn23 4 years ago

Who knew??? appreciate my lesson for the day! They look almost majestic and ups my respect quotient for travelers of the sea! (that's not chicken OR tuna..lol)voting up!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

And I appreciate your comment and vote up, ImKarn23. Thanks for reading.


iskra1916 profile image

iskra1916 4 years ago from Belfast, Ireland.

Voted up & shared!

Excellent article about lighthouses' oft forgotten 'cousins.'

There is some old Pathe film available on the web of lightships being relieved and of course, 'Channel Light-vessel Automatic' is a staple of BBC Radio 4's shipping forecast which I listen to nightly.


EsJam profile image

EsJam 16 months ago from Southern California

Fascinating Hub! I especially enjoyed the photos of the ships, so phenomenal!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 16 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, EsJam. I knew nothing about lightvessels until Peggy W asked a question about them and I started to research. Glad I did-- I learned a lot.

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