U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
The First Cruise
of Lightship 196
C. William Bailey
My orders arrived to proceed to a shipyard in Bay City, Michigan to bring out a new lightship. When I arrive there the yard went on strike with the ship not yet completed. Sitting in a hotel on government per diem with nothing to do, I looked up the nearest Salvation Army Band and reported for rehearsal. I always carried an old cornet during the war, and now was no exception.
The strike went of for a month. I met a girl in the band and we hit it off right from the start. Her name was Velma and her parents were Salvation Army officers. Children brought up in those families lead a sheltered life—no smoking, dancing, or drinking. Velma was nine years younger than me and was in nurses training at a local hospital. We dated as often as she could get away. Before the month was out (and the strike settled), I had proposed and was accepted.
I had bought a small diamond ring in Honolulu at a bargain, thinking that I would probably need it when I got home, so I called mother to send it PDQ. Then one night, I went with Velma to a movie and in a quiet love scene, slipped the ring on her finger. It was agreed that in a few weeks, when the ship was ready and I sailed, she would take the train to Boston to join me and meet mother.
We left Bay City in a gale of wind and stopped off in Cleveland. I had a premonition about the ship’s radio, which was just a low-powered radiotelephone. Of course, being a lightship, we had the powerful radio beacon transmitter, which sent signals on low frequency in Morse code as an aid to navigation, but this transmitter would not work on voice frequencies. And we did not rate having a Radioman on board. Nevertheless, with winter coming on (we were actually one of the last ships to leave the Lakes for sea), I had the district electronics officer install a key and set the radio beacon up on 500 kcs, the international calling frequency for use in an emergency.
This proved to be a wise precaution as near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River we had engine trouble and gale winds. I telephoned the district office for a shore phone asking for an escort for the ocean part of the voyage. We got no escort due to “shortage of money” they said.
We were told to submit position reports twice daily. Having had to learn flashing light for my merchant marine licenses, I figured that I could pound out very slowly a position report. However, there were immediate problems. Not being a Radioman, I did not know that the 500 kcs frequency may only be used as a calling frequency for communications—when contact is made we were supposed to move to 480 kcs to send the message. That was impossible with the equipment we had, and besides, I didn’t know how to change the frequency anyway. We stayed out of touch until we got back within short-range radiotelephone.
We left Cleveland in good weather but by the next morning we were within a howling gale again and steered over towards the Canadian shore to find a lee. Lake Erie has a reputation for fierce storms. Heading for the Welland Canal entrance, we were following a large ore ship. The weather got much worse and our radar went out (someone left a hatch open and seas drowned out the equipment).
Noting wooden hatch boards floating off the ship ahead, I decided not to try the narrow canal entrance in this weather and turned around and made our way back along the Canadian shore to Long Point, an anchorage area. It was foggy and we didn’t see any other ships. Anchoring in the lee of the land, we rode out the night. When the fog cleared the next morning, there were ships anchored all around us.
At Quebec the pilot came aboard and demanded his spitting can. Nothing would do until I had the cook empty out a No. 10 vegetable can and bring it to the wheelhouse. When we reached Father’s Point at the entrance to the river, the pilot boat radioed that it was too rough to remove the pilot. I knew I could not stand taking this individual all the way around to Halifax, so I asked him if we could go in to the tiny harbor of Rimouski where the pilot boat berths and put him off. He said that we would have to wait until 5 AM when the range lights came on (there was a power shortage) and that with our draft we might touch bottom coming over the bar. He said it was a soft bottom and I decided to take the chance. When we tied up I went to the pilot office for a weather report.
The next leg of our voyage would take us a hundred miles along the shore in deep water with absolutely no place to anchor. We had several engine stoppages while in the river, common to new installation, but the wind and current were always in the right direction to drift us along on our course. We could always anchor if needed, but this would not be the case of the next leg. We waited another day in Rimouski hoping the weather would improve. It was now December and winter was in full swing. We noticed ice getting thicker around the ship by the hour as we lay at the dock, and it seemed quite possible that we could become so icebound as to become stuck there all winter.
Early the next morning, as soon as the range lights came on, we departed. We had to work the ship back and forth at the dock for quite a while before the ice gave way to let us get out in the channel.
Yes, we did hit bottom several times, but it was soft mud and we just hooked her up full speed and ploughed through. We did NOT take a pilot to leave Rimouski. Twelve hours later we cleared the dangerous coast and headed for the open sea, breathing a sigh of relief.
Our Chief Engineman (we did not rate an Engineer Officer) did a fine job of keeping the 12-cylinder GM diesel running—it did not break down again until we were just off the entrance to Boston and within a mile of Boston Lightship. Then, for the next four hours, Boston Harbor had TWO lightships.
I was glad to be home and everything was fine about our arrival, except that the crusty old LT (a former Lighthouse Service man) did not want to relieve me because he said we had too much hamburger in the refrigerator. Being senior in date of rank at times like this simplifies problems—I got rid of the Pollock Rip Lightship and went home for a couple of days leave.
Following this I was ordered to the Coast Guard Yard at Baltimore to relieve command of the Woodbine, another 180-foot buoy tender.