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ABOARD THE US LIGHTSHIP OVERFALLS
Dave Bernheisel
Dave Bernheisel
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and his crew piloted a 1980 Mainship 34-I (powerboat, slow, single diesel) named Going There (as opposed to all those folks who have "been there") around the Great American Loop in 2002-2003. To join them on their trip, CLICK HERE.
Posted 02.26.04
DAVE BERNHEISEL

lightship

LEWES, DELAWARE | People love postcards and calendar art of lighthouses. They'll travel great distances to visit one. But, does anyone care anymore about lightships?

Lightships were used where it was impractical to build and/or service a lighthouse. The first US lightship was inaugurated in the lower Chesapeake Bay in 1820.

And one of the 17 survivors, a Maine-built lightship dubbed the Overfalls, is being restored here by a dedicated group of enthusiasts.

The earliest lightships were used by the Romans. As sea travel became more prominent, northern Europeans began using lightships to guide both war and merchant ships back to safe harbor Over the years, 179 lightships were built to serve in US waters. Given the importance of maritime activity in United States, lightships were interspersed with lighthouses in the coastal waters and through the Great Lakes.

After WWII, improvements in other aids to navigation and the high cost of staffing lightships started to render them obsolete.

The last of the US lightships, the Nantucket, was decommissioned in 1985.

Today, most of the 17 surviving lightships are being preserved as museums.

The Overfalls is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Lewes, Delaware. (See www.overfalls.org.)

When US lightships were built, they were given a number -- LV 118 (for light vessel) in the case of the Overfalls. The lightship was then given the name of the station to which it was assigned. If the ship moved to a new station, the name was changed appropriately.

The Overfalls was built in East Boothbay, Maine in 1938 and first served on the Cornfield station, near the mouth of the Connecticut River in Long Island Sound. Later she was moved farther east to the Cross Rip station.

Her last duty station was Boston where she served until she was decommissioned in 1972.

Each US lightship was unique, but they were similar in size with a bright red hull and the station name painted on the hull in large, white letters.

lightshipThe Overfalls is 114 feet long, 26 feet wide, and weighs 422 tons.

When on station she was held in place by a 7000 pound mushroom anchor; underway she was powered by a 400 HP Cooper-Bessimer diesel engine.

How was life for a sailor aboard the Overfalls?

The ship had a crew of fourteen who were divided into three sections. The duty schedule ran on a weekly basis with two sections aboard at any one time.

While the ship would stay anchored on station for about two years at a time, supplies and rotating crew members would be brought out each week by another ship called a lightship tender.

Between those weekly visits the crew aboard kept busy with "lighthouse" type chores (keeping the lights, fog horn, and radio gear in working order and other routine maintenance). They also did weather observations, water samples, and logged the passing big ship traffic.

Because the ship was always on station, the sailors did these tasks in every type of weather imaginable.

In 1973, the US Coast Guard donated the ship to the Lewes Historical Society. She was renamed Overfalls for the station in the mouth of the Delaware Bay where previous lightships had served until 1961.

After arrival in Lewes, the ship was largely neglected until 1999 when a group began restoration. As the group gained momentum, they formed the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation (OMMF) and, in 2001, were granted title to the ship.

How is the Overfalls restoration going?

The outside deck areas have all been cleaned, chipped and painted. Inside, everything has been cleaned and the paint work is about half done. Most important, however, is preserving the hull which, in some places, has lost half of its thickness.

lightship

This is a big job. While the painting, etc. is done by the OMMF volunteers on a low-budget basis, the hull preservation will be much more complicated and costly.

Current plans call for lifting the ship and putting it in a cradle at a cost of close to $1 million. This will require substantial outside money, which OMMF is actively pursuing.

Even with restoration in process, the ship is open for tours on weekends in the summer season (see the web site for details). In addition to the ship, Lewes (pronounced Lewis) is a delightful place to visit.

As the first town (1631) in the first state (Delaware was first to ratify the US constitution), Lewes has a long history which is prominent throughout the town (the effects of the War of 1812 are still visible).

A visit to the Overfalls, and Lewes in general, would be a good use of several days as you travel along the Atlantic coast. Until you can make that visit, you are invited to participate in the Overfalls project (see the "Join Us" button on the website).

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