OAKLAND — Silver-haired Walter Fanning clambered carefully down the steep metal staircase into the engine room of the old lightship. By the dim beam of a flashlight, he prowled around the room, flicking switches and pressing buttons. In a moment, the roar of a diesel engine filled the cramped space, and the room's lights flickered on, illuminating the grin on Fanning's face.
For nearly a year, Fanning, 78, and a band of 20 volunteers have spent their Saturdays chipping, painting, scrubbing and otherwise restoring the former Coast Guard lightship No. WLV605, most recently known as the Relief.
The lightship is one of the last of the floating lighthouses that once warned ships away from rough seas and unseen obstacles off the Northern California coast. The U.S. Lighthouse Society, of which Fanning is vice president,has raised about $70,000 to restore the vessel and hopes to open it to the public in April or May.
"There's a whole history here of a way of life that's gone," said Wayne Wheeler, president of the 4,000-member Lighthouse Society. "There were 200 years of manned lightships here, and 2,000 years around the world."
Lightships dropped anchor near dangerous reefs and other navigational hazards and stayed there in all kinds of weather. Their light and sound signals warned other ships to keep away from them, but some were rammed, and many sank in storms.
The first U.S. lightship was built in 1821 and was stationed near Smith Point, Va., on Chesapeake Bay. By 1915, 72 lightships rotated among 54 stations off the east and west coasts, each ship taking on the name of the place where it was stationed.
The 600-ton, 128-foot Relief began its career in 1951 at the Overfalls station off the Delaware coast. In 1960, it moved to Blunts Reef, five miles off Cape Mendocino in Northern California. After nine years there, it was renamed Relief and served seven years relieving lightships at the four West Coast stations. The Relief ended its career in 1976, and in 1978, it was sold to Alan Hosking of Woodside, who donated the vessel to the Lighthouse Society.
Over the years, the Coast Guard has gradually replaced its lightships with automatic navigational buoys. The last U.S. lightship station, the Nantucket, went out of service in 1985.
Wheeler, who spent 12 years as a navigation aid specialist with the Coast Guard, said a lightship sailor's life was no picnic.
"It's hours and hours of boredom laced with a few minutes of sheer terror," he said.
Carl Arko, 39, lived that life for 11 months and 20 days in 1967. He served as a seaman on the Relief when it was anchored in the treacherous seas near Blunts Reef. A tall, lean, bearded man who is now a contractor in Pinole, Calif., he arrived here to take a tour of his old ship with Fanning after reading about the restoration in a local newspaper.
"The first day I came out to this ship, the ocean was like glass," Arko recalled from the deck of the vessel, gesturing with a sweep of his hand at the calm water of the Oakland estuary. "I thought, 'This is going to be a breeze!' Less than eight days later, we had the worst storm I ever saw out there. We had water coming over the bridge and 90-m.p.h. winds."
Lightship crew members lived on the ship for four weeks at a time, then got two weeks off. Between eight and 10 people were on board at a time, and they had few diversions. When the seas were calm, the ship's officers held the seamen to a strict routine of chipping, painting, polishing brass and tending the ship's beacon and foghorn. Many of the chores, Arko said, were busywork designed to keep the men from getting restless.
"A lot of guys just couldn't take the isolation," Arko said.
Stepping below deck to the cramped recreation room, Arko looked around in surprise.
"I remember it being smaller," he said.
A few books were stacked in a gray metal bookcase: "Too Much Sun," "Winter of Madness," "The Four Winds."
A seagoing tug from the Coast Guard station at Humboldt Bay brought mail, fresh food and a relief crew every two weeks. Sometimes the seas were too rough for the lifeboat to ferry the supplies to the Relief.
"We'd just look at each other and wave, and they'd go back to Humboldt Bay with all that fresh fruit and milk," Arko recalled.
Arko remembered being surrounded by fog for up to three weeks at a time. That meant that the ship's diaphone, or foghorn, would go off every 30 seconds day and night. When the fog lifted and the diaphone was silent again, Arko said, it took a few days for the men to shake the habit of pausing every 30 seconds when they talked to each other.
For all the tedium that Arko experienced on the lightship, he remembers his time there fondly. Occasionally, he said, he got a close-up look at the whales that would rub lightly against the ship. And he said he learned a lot about life from the older crew members.
"It was a tale a minute here," he said.
Wheeler, Fanning and the other Lighthouse Society volunteers hope the restored lightship museum will help keep the history of lightships alive. Wheeler said he is astonished at the rapid growth of the society, which he founded in 1984. He said he gets letters from people in landlocked states who have never seen the ocean, a lighthouse or a lightship but want to contribute to the society or the restoration project.
Fanning doesn't know exactly what the appeal of lighthouses and lightships is for people who have never seen them. But he was born in a lighthouse at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, where his grandfather was assistant keeper, and has a simple explanation for why he has spent hundreds of hours working on the lightship restoration.
"It's in the blood," he said.