Digest>Archives> July 2004

Nantucket Lightship Restored in Oyster Bay

By Bill Bleyer

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The Nantucket Lightship came to New York’s Oyster Bay Oyster Festival last fall and never left.

The 150-foot, fire-engine red vessel has remained on Long Island’s North Shore for an ongoing restoration by volunteers.

The floating lighthouse, owned by the National Lighthouse Museum being established on Staten Island, was expected to stick around at the Waterfront Center for repairs until February. But the current plan is to keep it in Oyster Bay until the next Oyster Festival in October.

Then the vessel, built in 1936, will return to a newly restored pier adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal where the lighthouse museum hopes to open an exhibit building by the end of the year.

The reason that the museum brought the lightship to the oyster festival and left it in Oyster Bay was the presence of volunteers who worked on the restoration of the historic oyster sloop Christeen in 1998-1999 and were looking for a new project.

“These guys know what they’re doing,” said Ben Butler, Director of Marine Operations for the lighthouse museum and supervisor of the restoration. “I don’t want a bunch of weekend sailors on the boat.”

The volunteers went right to work, stringing Christmas lights and working on the boiler so they would have heat aboard. They have overhauled the engines, generators, and galley, and they also have been correcting list by fixing broken bilge pumps. They have also been repainting the flaking hull and interior.

The lightship, designated WLV-534 by the government, is one of a series of vessels that alerted mariners to the shoals off Nantucket. It was built after the RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, rammed and sunk her predecessor marking the shoals off Nantucket. The British paid for the replacement, the world’s largest lightship. During World War II, the vessel was painted gray and outfitted with guns before being assigned to guard the harbor at Portland, Maine. Back on station after the war, the ship in 1954 survived Hurricane Edna, whose 110 mph winds and 70-feet seas nearly ripped the pilothouse off the deck and blew out most of the portholes.

Retired in 1975, the ship was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It was docked at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan before being acquired by the HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn., which sold it to the lighthouse museum in 2002 for $1.

The ship was brought to Brooklyn the following month and docked at the Red Hook Terminal while the city spent $1.5 million to repair the Staten Island pier.

When the museum took title to the vessel, Butler asked the Rose organization about volunteers who had worked on the vessel in Connecticut. They mentioned Bill Shephard, Sr., of Plainview, and his son Bill Jr. The elder Shephard suggested bringing the ship to Oyster Bay because he had worked on Christeen. Now he’s heading the volunteer effort for the Nantucket.

One of the volunteers, Bob Gubatosi, came all the way from Pennsylvania to serve as cook. His dedication is explained by a special connection with the lightship: he was a seaman aboard when it was on station in Massachusetts.

Shephard, 73, a retired Grumman engineer, first got involved in marine restoration by working on the tall ship Wavertree at South Street Seaport in Manhattan. “I was in the Navy for four years, and I’ve always had a boat,” he said. “I just love the water. And it keeps me out of trouble.”

He worked on the lightship in Bridgeport every Saturday with the hope—unfulfilled because of insurance problems—of having the vessel participate in Operation Sail 2000.

Now he has been joined by more than 20 volunteers, including midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. Butler said the museum expects to spend about $25,000 for materials and equipment to make the ship seaworthy.

While the Nantucket remains in Oyster Bay, Rob Crafa, Director of the Waterfront Center, plans to capitalize on its presence. “It’s an amazing educational tool,” he said. “People understand the purpose of a lighthouse, but a lightship is foreign to many people.”

After the ship leaves, hopefully under its own power, Butler plans to use it for dockside display, fundraising events, and school tours in Staten Island. “I want to go to different festivals in Greenport, Nantucket, and back here in Oyster Bay so we will get known,” he said.

He hopes the Oyster Bay volunteers will stay involved with others recruited in Staten Island. “It’s a national treasure, and I want to keep it that way,” Butler said.

This story appeared in the July 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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