Maritime Topics On Stamps :

    Lightships !
Lightship 'East Goodwin'

Elbe 1
Roman galleys had a short mast with an iron basket which was used not only to heat fiery projectiles in armed conflicts but also to light a fire showing merchant vessels the way to the harbor. In the 15th century the Dutch used so called lightships with a lamp in the mast. Placed at harbor entrances they guided fishing boats to a safe return.
In 1731 the first lightship with the name 'Nore' was placed in the mouth of the river Thames. This was a private initiative of the British shipmaster M. Hamblin. In 1674 the Admiralty had rejected such a proposal as an 'idea of a madman'.

East Goodwin 1
Lightships were nothing but navigational aids for other ships. They were placed as a warning near sand banks, reefs and shoals and served as signposts for port entrances. And they were always at such places where it is impossible to build a lighthouse. Early on, lightships were rebuilt vessels, later specially constructed ones for their special tasks. Most important were recognition from far away, by their distinct appearance during the day, and by their lights at night.

Early lightships' hulls were mostly painted black, but all kinds of other colors were used as well. By the 20th century lightships were painted red with station names on both sides in white. It is important to distinguish between ship names and station names, for instance the lightship named 'Norderney', while anchored at the position Weser, was identified as 'Weser' by large white lettering on her hull.

Usually, stations were named for the shoals or rocks the lightships were warning against, for example 'Terschellinger Bank' or 'Seven Stones'. Or they carried the names of port or river entrances, for instance 'Elbe 1' or 'Weser'. For better identification from afar, lightships displayed one or two ball signals by day. At night, they carried one or more lamps at one or two masts (see Swedish stamp). Or they had a ring of lamps around the mast, which was heaved up in the evening. By mid-19th century masts were equipped with stationary all-around lights. Each lightship could be recognized by its individual characteristic with white, red, or green colors, and either alternating, flashing, fixed, fixed and flashing, occulting, or 'quick flashing' lights. As the ships were swinging at their anchors it was impossible to install fixed light sectors as was done with lighthouses.

stamp lightvessel 1
Lightships were manned by crews of 3 to 7 men who sailed the ships to their stations and moored them with special mushroom anchors. Over time the sails were replaced by engines. During a gale, a running engine would ease the strain on the ship's anchor chain. The crew's foremost duty was to hold the lightvessel on her position and to maintain proper working of the signalling systems. This included constant verification of the ship's position and maintenance of the whole vessel, especially the lamp apparatus and other signalling devices. In fog or bad visibility the crew operated the foghorn or the ship's bell. Ships in danger of running onto the shoals were warned off with salvos from small guns. And the crew did the jobs of a meteorological station. Information about wind direction and strength, height of waves, visibility, barometric pressure, dew point, air and water temperatures were broadcast to stations ashore. In an age before wireless radio, important messages were sent off with carrier pigeons.

Elbe 2
The last lightships had the latest electronic equipment aboard, for example 'racon' (radar beacon), a special radar response technique. When radar rays of closing ships hit the lightvessel, exact information regarding identification, distance and bearing was transmitted back to the ships. Many lightships were also used as pilot stations, with cabins for the pilots aboard. The stamp at left shows the transfer of a pilot from the lightship 'Elbe 2'.

Elbe 1
Life and work on lightships was dangerous business. Other vessels steered directly to a lightship's position, stationed at its fixed site. There were uncounted collisions during bad visibility or fog. And the lighvessels had to remain on their position; neither strong gales nor hurricanes permitted them to sail to a safe port (i.e. unless the captain found it absolutely necessary for survival). In 1936 the lightship 'Bürgermeister O'Swald' on station 'Elbe 1' capsized in a hurricane and sank; all 25 crew members died. The stamp at left was issued in memory of this disaster.
Often during a gale the anchor chains parted and the ships were thrown onto a shoal or beach and wrecked by the seas. Also in 1936, the 'Daunt Rock' lightship lost its anchor in a storm. The eight crew members were saved in a 63 hour rescue effort, commemorated with the stamp at right. In a fog in 1934, the British passenger liner 'Olympic' rammed and cut in two the U.S. lightship on station 'Nantucket'. Both parts sank immediately and seven Coast Guard seamen lost their lives. Worldwide, 75 manned lightvessels were lost on their stations. The number of lost crewmembers is in the hundreds.
Daunt Rock

The high costs for operation and maintenance led to develop alternate solutions. In 1890 the German Julius Pintsch had constructed a gas light, which was able to burn unattended for many months. This type of light enabled the development of beacons and unmanned lightships at the turn of the century. At the same time, existing lightships were rebuilt for automatic operation.
unmanned vessel
An unmanned lightship is being monitored from shore via wireless radio. It is full of sophisticated electronic devices and is fitted with a sound fog signal and a radar beacon. It reports its position and all meteorological data; automatically switches to a reserve light in case of any malfunctioning or extinguished light; operates bailing pumps in case of leaks; at night illuminates itself for greater visibility; and, for shipwrecked persons, provides emergency accommodations equipped with a sea rescue radio. The German unmanned lightship 'UFS 1' ('Unbemanntes Feuerschiff') has the followings specs: Length 85ft, beam 21ft, draft 8ft, 177 BRT, height of the light 39ft above sea level with a visibility of 17 nautical miles in clear weather.
On the stamp above at left we see a NOMAD (Navy Oceanographic and Meteorological Automatic Device) weather station. Appearance and dimensions are very similar to an unmanned lightship. For calm waters, huge LANBY BUOYS (Large Navigational Buoy) with a 40ft diameter were developed (see stamp at right). Far out at sea the hull of an unmanned vessel was more appropriate than a round buoy.

stamp lightvessel 2
The history of manned lightships began with the British lightship 'Nore' in 1731 and ended with the removal of the Belgian lightship on station 'West Hinder' in 1994. During this time period approximately 1000 lightships were moored worldwide. There were about 180 off the coasts of the United States including the Great Lakes, 150 around Great Britain, and nearly 80 off the German coasts in the North Sea and the Baltic. This is counting the lightships, the number of stations was about 350. 10 different main lightships served on station 'Elbe 1'. And then there were 'reserve lightships' placed in service during maintenance times. Lightships are history now. They were replaced by buoys, unmanned lightships, and sometimes not at all, rendered obsolete by new navigation systems such as GPS (Global Position System).

out of duty
Borkum Riff
Germany's last manned lightvessel, 'Borkum Riff' was built from 1954 to 1956 (see 'Quittungsmarke', dues receipt stamp). Some specs: Length 151ft, beam 30ft, draft 15ft, 883 tdw, height of the light 67ft, visibility 21 nautical miles. In 1988 she was decommissioned and replaced by a buoy. Today she is a museum ship at the North Sea National Park at the island of Borkum.
Lightship 'Bürgermeister O'Swald II' on station 'Elbe 1' sent its last weather report to Helgoland radio on April 22, 1988 (see German text on card detail.) Then the decommissioning followed. Today, one can visit the 'navigable' museum ship at the port of Cuxhaven. She was replaced by the unmanned lightvessel 'UFS 1'. During 40 years on duty the lightship had been rammed more than 50 times, had to fight with dragging anchors, broken chains, and drifting off position. She had served as pilot station for all the ships headed to a port on the Elbe River or the Kiel Canal. And when German seamen, inbound, passed their lightvessel 'Elbe 1', they knew that they were 'home again'.

Amrum Bank
Today, many former lightships are used as museums ships as the 'Borkum Riff', above. A great number serve as floating restaurants like the 'Amrumbank', today in the port of Emden (stamp mark at right). Some lightvessels were rebuilt as sailing ships and yachts, because they had been sailing ships once before. A good example is the former lightship 'Sonderburg' which was placed at station 'Kiel'. Today she is the sail training vessel 'Alexander von Humboldt' (left stamp mark). One former lightship was used as 'pirate radio station' in the English Channel. Others have been used as sets for movies.

'Nantucket' station is the navigation point for all ships crossing the North Atlantic bound for ports on the United States East Coast. Over the years, 19 main lightships have seen duty here, maintained by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The last one was decommissioned in 1983. Shown here is 'Lightship 613'. Due to the underinked print the picture is presented in 'negative'.

Here some cancellation pictures of German lightvessels:
Elbe 3
Elbe 3

© Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved. email to  

  Next Page
  Menu Page
  home, first page