The Nantucket Lightship at the Jakobson's Pier at the Western Waterfront in Oyster Bay Harbor.
The now familiar sight of the Nantucket Lightship, at the Jakobson Pier on the Western Waterfront in Oyster Bay may soon be history. Gerald Roberts, director of marine operations of the National Lighthouse Museum in Staten Island hopes to forestall that move. Mr. Roberts received a formal notice, via Fax and certified mail to "Vacate Premises/Terminate Illegal Occupancy and Trespass Vessel - Nantucket 112" from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who operate the western waterfront, with the Town of Oyster Bay. Mr. Roberts is trying to show the DEC and the town the importance of the vessel as he works to find a new home for it. He hopes the town will consider the fate of this unique ship.
The town public information office explained the formal notice saying, "With the hope of resolving this issue without resorting to more formal means, those responsible for the Nantucket were asked several times verbally to remove the vessel from the Western Waterfront. When it became obvious that nothing was being done to remove the Nantucket, the DEC and the Town took the next step, which was to issue a formal notice to vacate the premises."
They added, "The DEC and the Town are asking the Nantucket to leave because the boat is causing damage to the pier. As long as it is there, the extent of the damage cannot be fully assessed. Also, the presence of the Nantucket is preventing the use of the dock for other activities such as expansion of the Town's FLUPSY oyster and clam seeding project, sail school programs and public fishing."
The town said the ship being at the dock is holding up a complete assessment of damage that is being caused to the dock by the boat.
The WaterFront Center board president Fritz Coudert met Mr. Roberts on Feb. 25 and said the Nantucket came to Oyster Bay after NLM board member Ben Butler wrote a letter to Charles Hamilton, then the DEC superintendent of the Western Waterfront, asking if the ship could come into the dock. Mr. Coudert said that Mr. Hamilton phoned Mr. Butler and gave him verbal permission to dock in Oyster Bay. The ship needed to be brought in by tug since their engine wasn't operating. They expected to be out of Oyster Bay in a few months, after repairs were made.
Mr. Coudert said there was no paper trail for the permission given to dock in Oyster Bay. That has since caused trouble for the ship.
Mr. Coudert is a SILM board member but said, "I love the Nantucket and think it should be preserved. It is a wonderful treasure. It was built by the English because the original Nantucket was sunk by the Olympia, the sister ship of the Titanic. The Olympia hit the Nantucket and sank her. In true British fashion they said, 'terribly sorry' and gave us money and said, 'why not build a new one'. There were two other lightships built after that but they were only 90 ft. long. The Nantucket is 150 ft. long."
Mr. Roberts said, "We are appealing to the DEC, the Town of Oyster Bay and to Senator Carl Marcellino to let the ship stay there a while longer, while we negotiate with New York City. This is the safest place for the Nantucket. It's not taking up space and it is one of most important ships we have. The town thinks it is an abandoned ship. I'm trying to get a meeting with them."
He said the only damage the ship could do to the dock would be if a hurricane hit Oyster Bay. He said the ship is fully insured. "It probably needs better fendering but it's not doing any structural damage to the dock." To show his information was valid, he said, "I'm a maritime person with a master's license."
Mr. Roberts said, "We probably have to improve the fendering but we need funding and volunteers for that. The ship is in limbo. We didn't know when we arrived here. No one wanted to do anything permanent. We just need a few more months. We are not bad guys trying to trespass. We are the stewards to a ship that has had tough luck."
He said, "Cosmetically the ship doesn't look very good and it has been vandalized. While it's been in Oyster Bay kids came aboard and smashed the portholes and have tried to steal things from the ship. Despite that the ship is safe here. If we had to move it it would go to an abandoned shipyard. There are historic ships all over this country rotting away because no one has restored them. We want to keep this ship safe to restore it. We may find out our negotiations with New York are successful and we will have the money to restore it soon but, I can't promise."
Mr. Roberts sounded desperate. He said, "I've been sailing in New York State for the last 25 years. I've been involved in other historic preservations. The easiest thing would be to sell the ship for scrap but then this national landmark would be gone. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. The plaque says so. In this country's history there were 170 other lightships and all the others have been scrapped. In the past 15 years no one in position to save them has come forth. Since it was the largest and most important lightship, it is the one to save. We just need a break."
He added, "I will go anywhere and anytime to meet anyone who can help."
Four men braved the cold blustery wind to climb aboard what at first glance looks like a rusty old hulk tied to the Jakobson Pier at the western waterfront in Oyster Bay on Saturday, Feb. 25. They had come from Arizona, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Melville, Long Island just to be there, on that cold day. They didn't mind the numbing wind, or the fact that they had to climb over the pier's wooden railing and leap to the rusty deck of the old ship as it tugged at its mooring lines in the 20-knot gusts. They were greeted by a few locals who, like them know what this ship really is.
I had come to see them, to hear their stories and watch as they transformed themselves from men in their 50s back to 20-year-old Coast Guardsmen sharing one of the strangest jobs on earth. They also transformed the ship. Bill Shepard went below and cranked a rusty generator and lights illuminated the corridors once again. LV-112, the Nantucket Lightship, had part of her crew back on board, and for a few hours you could feel the glory that this ship once knew as the most important floating lighthouse in the world.
I wonder how many local citizens know what this big red thing tied to their pier actually is. It's hard to miss with a 150-foot long hull painted red and emblazoned with eight-foot tall letters spelling out N-A-N-T-U-C-K-E-T. Once upon a time this ship was anchored on the most remote lighthouse station on the planet. Fifty miles southeast of Nantucket Island, nearly 100 miles out to sea from mainland USA, this ship was the first beacon, the first sign of civilization, seen by immigrants and seafarers as they approached New York from Europe. Through nearly continuous fog, frequent Nor'easters and occasional hurricanes, the Nantucket Lightship and her crews stood their ground from 1936 to 1975, marking the outer limits of the treacherous Nantucket Shoals and defining the edge of the New World. It was literally a light in the darkness proclaiming, "You've made it across the ocean, next stop, America."
These four men, Bob Arbuthnot, Peter Bombard, Tommy Conca and Mike Ninivaggi, served aboard the Nantucket during its last two years on station before it was retired 31 years ago. It was replaced by a newer, smaller lightship, and then in 1983 by a giant buoy that still lights that desolate place.
I listened to their stories as they explored their old home. They had not seen her, or each other since they left her decks in 1975, but suddenly they were best friends again, shipmates as they checked out their old bunks, the galley and the wheelhouse. Old stories began to flow as if it all just happened last week.
I had worried what they would think of her condition. To them this had been the greatest ship in the world, a ship that tens of thousands of other ships had depended upon to mark their safe passage. The years have taken their toll on the Nantucket, but the men shook it off, just glad to be back aboard. Glad she was still afloat and not scrapped long ago like most other lightships. In fact, of the 179 American lightships that served between the early 1800s and 1983, only 13 remain afloat. The Nantucket is the largest and strongest ever built, the jewel in the crown of the Coast Guard and the US Lighthouse Service. My job is to see that it survives long enough to be restored and set on a new course. For now Oyster Bay, and this dock are the great ship's safe haven.
When the Nantucket was retired from Coast Guard service it passed through the hands of several not-for profit organizations. A group in Portland, Maine, where the ship had been stationed during the war years, operated the Nantucket as a maritime education center and even took it around to several ports in New England for maritime festivals. When they ran out of steam the ship was transferred to the Intrepid Museum in New York City where I was in charge of exhibits and education. We maintained the ship in top shape and took her on annual tours of Long Island Sound and out as far as New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard and even Nantucket Island itself. When our collection of ships got too big to manage I had to find a new home for the 112. I searched hard for an organization that would take care of her, and keep her alive. I chose the HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Connecticut and we sold it to them for a dollar. To our dismay, that was about all they had, for soon the ship was neglected, and left to rust.
A few years back I had become involved in the project to build a National Lighthouse Museum. I wanted to make sure that lightships were included and we chose Staten Island as the location for two reasons. For over 100 years it was home to the largest lighthouse and lightship depot in the country, and the historic site has an 800-foot long pier in the heart of New York Harbor. We all knew there was only one lightship we wanted. We bought the 112 back for a dollar but it was in bad shape. We towed it to Staten Island but the abandoned site was an urban wasteland and the ship was vandalized while there. To keep her safe we towed it to a shipping terminal in Brooklyn where it was in danger of becoming a forgotten hulk. Then, a couple of years ago, because of some local volunteer interest, the ship was brought to Oyster Bay where it took part in the annual Oyster Festival.
We swept the decks, put out a gangway and watched as several thousand people discovered this great ship. When school kids asked what it was the volunteers proudly told them, "She's the world's greatest floating lighthouse!" The kids would say "Wow," and look up to the top of the two masts where the great lights still stand...lights that guided famous vessels like the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the Normande, the USS United States, as well as great warships and cargo vessels, to and from our shores for several decades.
A dedicated volunteer group was formed in Oyster Bay and set about to reverse the damage of the neglect she suffered in Bridgeport. Meanwhile the NLM board of directors negotiated with the city of New York to secure the Staten Island site and raise the money needed to restore the five historic but crumbling US Lighthouse Service buildings there. A year ago I was asked to take over the project, which was in danger of stalling out. Now, we are close to making the deal, close to building a major museum that will celebrate our national maritime heritage. But we are not there yet. The deal may take several more months; it may stall. But at least the Nantucket has had a safe haven, until now.
A few weeks before Christmas we received a letter from DEC evicting the Nantucket from the pier. They said we were trespassing. We were dumfounded. We told them we could not tow this ship out into Long Island Sound in the middle of the winter. We have no place to take it right now. It cannot go back to Staten Island until the deal is done and the pier made ready.
So we are hoping that DEC, and the Town of Oyster Bay will take a closer look at this old hull. I hope they will see a national landmark that just needs a bit of help, a safe place to rest while its new course is being plotted.
She was the first symbol of America that countless thousands of immigrants coming to Ellis Island encountered. It guided countless ships to safety over its active service life. Some day it will provide maritime and environmental education to the next generation of Americans. We just have to keep this ship safe while we raise the money, make the deals and build for the future.
Hopefully we will be able to stay for a while longer. Hopefully the spring will bring more volunteers to help get this American icon shipshape and money to put her in dry dock for a complete refit. And hopefully this ship will someday return to make a contribution to the people of Oyster Bay and be welcomed back to its home away from home a month or two each summer.
Right now it just needs some time, a bit of TLC and a new crew of volunteers to join her original crewmen in making sure we keep the lights shining, and the heritage alive. If you'd like to help, visit us at www.lighthousemuseum.org.