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Honoring of a Nantucket Lightship

June 08, 1986|BEVERLY DITMARS | Ditmars is a Pacific Palisades free-lance writer.

NANTUCKET, Mass. — It's a celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's a birthday party and everyone is invited. What a great spectacle it will be as up to 141 ships parade down the Hudson River in July during the 100-year celebration of the Statue of Liberty.

One of the ships participating in the parade will be the Nantucket Lightship, No. 534. It only seems fitting that one of Nantucket Island's own should be an honored invitee to the celebration. This lightship's history is shared with predecessors whose station was the Shoals of Nantucket.

The succession of ships serving the shoals began in 1854. Lightship No. 117 became active in 1931 and by 1934 her station 50 miles south of Nantucket Island and 200 miles east of New York City was established as a friendly beacon helping to keep vessels on course.

Homing in on this first sentry was common practice for transoceanic vessels to and from Europe through the North Atlantic sea lanes. On the morning of May 15, 1934, the Olympic, sister ship to the famous Titanic, struck No. 117 at 16 knots in pea-soup fog.

Loss of a Lightship

The Olympic sliced through the unsuspecting lightship, sending her to the bottom in minutes. Only the captain and three of the 10 crewmen survived. Because the Olympic was British, England donated a new lightship to replace No. 117. No. 534 served on station from 1936 to 1975, when it was retired from service.

For years No. 534 served as the Nantucket Lightship Museum at Nantucket Island, but in 1984 she flew a "For Sale" flag. One of the potential purchasers intended to convert the lightship into a fast-food restaurant. Not a deserving fate, indeed.

Nantucket Lightship Preservation Inc., a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation, and Gerald Lambert, a California and Cape Cod businessman, rescued No. 534. It was bought for $1 by the corporation in March, 1985, with the intention of converting it into a floating museum.

This idea was not new to Gerald Lambert. He was involved in the restoration of the Pampanito (SS 383), a World War II Baleo Class II submarine. This floating museum has been open since 1982 under the ownership of the National Maritime Museum Assn. at Pier 45 in San Francisco.

Lambert has similar plans for Nantucket Lightship No. 534. It is to be in Nantucket adjacent to Straight Wharf during summer and in Boston Harbor adjacent to the Constitution ("Old Ironsides") the rest of the year. There will be a nominal fee for the tour at each berth.

She will leave Boston to take part in the Statue of Liberty celebration July 3-4. With a fresh coat of brilliant red paint and her renovation completed, Lambert said, "The lightship will be a significant entrant in the parade of ships down the Hudson." President Reagan will unveil the newly restored Statue of Liberty on July 3 at her birthday party that will also feature fireworks and the parade of ships.

Head for Nantucket

Then No. 534, with her celebrity status firmly intact, will head for Nantucket. Maybe she will lead the way for your arrival on the Gray Lady, as Nantucket is often called. Your first glimpse of land might be Brant Point Lighthouse. The island is only 3 1/2 miles by 14, 30 miles south of the Massachusetts mainland. In the winter the island's population is about 6,000 but in the summer it swells to more than six times that figure.

The 18th-Century whaling days are detailed at the Whaling Museum.

At several fine restaurants you might begin your dinner with quahog chowder and Portuguese bread, followed by fresh Nantucket bay scallops prepared to order.

But your meal's secret ingredient is the island. Its fresh sea air and hearty life style combine to enhance your appetite. Cape Cod residents often come to Nantucket for the day just to sample culinary specialties. A better endorsement is hard to find.

No matter when you choose to visit Nantucket her magic will play a part in your stay. I was intrigued by an old-timer who told me he hadn't been to "America" for seven years. Instead of correcting him I listened, captivated by his firsthand experiences. I knew he had a point about Nantucket's individuality.

Maybe the feeling happens because of the island's independence from the mainland, or maybe because on Nantucket the past is still alive, separating you from the present. Whatever the reason, her charms will captivate you.

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