What is a Lightship?

A light ship is a vessel that operates basically as a surrogate lighthouse tower to assist ships in navigation. Although lightships still exist contemporarily, their viability was huger in those times when marine construction and architecture wasn’t as developed and advanced, as it is today.

Lightships were put into operation in those oceanic areas where the weather and climatic conditions were volatile and actual structuring of lighthouse towers were exceedingly arduous.

The lightvessel would thus provide the same feasibilities like a conventional lighthouse tower, although with the difference that the vessel would be perpetually be berthed on the same oceanic location.

The earliest recorded operational date of the light vessel is said to be in the early 18th century in Great Britain, or to be more precise in the Thames River in England.


By the next century, the concept and the idea had moved further west and very soon, such vessels were started be operated by the United States of America. Contemporarily, the concept of a light ship is quite synonymous with the USA, as further technological advancements were made to the original light vessel concept in the country.

In order to ensure that the stability of the lightvessel while on water, irrespective of the prevailing weather and climate inclement, the anchoring systems were modified and re-designed. Even the light reflecting systems underwent huge modifications from simple lamps using oils and kerosene to ones utilising refractive lenses

Wooden structuring of the vessels were replaced by more corrosive and damage resistant components like iron and steel

In order to enable easy identification of the lightvessels, their outer structures used to be colour-coded with certain specific colours. When seen at day-time, the location of these lightvessels enabled the other vessels’ to confirm their location at water.


The total duration of the functionality of the lightship used to be for more than 12-hours. The time-period included a pre-dusk hour and a post-daybreak hour so as to provide the maximum utility possible to the other vessels.

Decline of the Lightship

After almost being operation for over a century and a half, the lightships slowly started to being relegated. Towards the end of the 19th century, lighthouses towers grew in numbers predominantly, which further reduced the utility value of these mobile lighthouses.

Today not many of these mobile-yet-stationary lighthouses exist and even if some do, they are looked as a novelty – yet important – value addition to the maritime community across the world.

The light vessels are an essential bridge of knowledge and information between the past and the present, helping enthusiasts to understand the difficulties and the intellectual prowess of the seafaring community to surmount these difficulties.

You may also like to read-The Story of the Inchcape Rock and Bell Rock Lighthouse

References: nps.gov, nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum,


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