With their post-box red hulls and name in six foot white letters, lightships were once a common sight around the UK coastline. They were floating lighthouses, marking sandbanks and shoals where stone towers could not be built. Like lighthouses each one showed a distinctive light pattern, marking it out from other lightships or from lighthouses and buoys. When visibility fell, due to fog or heavy rain, each one also had an audible fog signal and some even had submerged bells or other sounders that ships could detect from a distance. In later years lightships carried radio beacons sending a distinguishing signal in morse code on longwave radio, helping ships to fix their position.
Working on a lightship could be a dangerous job; in the worst storms, when other ships ran for shelter, lightships stayed on station marking the danger and keeping a lookout for ships in trouble. Lightships sometimes dragged their anchor. They were vulnerable as they had no means of propulsion and were dependent on a Lighthouse Tender to move them from station to shore. In 1954 The South Goodwin Lightship, stationed on the perilous Goodwin sands off the Kent coast, broke free and ran aground in Storm Force winds. All the crew of 7 were lost, the only survivor was an ornithologist, employed by the government and studying migration patterns who was abound the lightship at the time of the storm.
Lightships were costly to run and improvements in navigation equipment gradually made them redundant. Helipads were fitted to may lightvessels in the early 1970’s and by the 1980’s their numbers had diminished. The last lightvessel was automated in 1989 and the lightships’ crews went ashore for the last time. Today, Trinity House maintain just nine automated lightship stations with a few additional ships in reserve. Solar powered and stripped of all but essential equipment, today’s lightships can remain on station for four or five years before coming in to dry dock. Some of their names can be heard in the Shipping Forecast as they still report conditions to the Met Office, albeit automatically – Channel Lightvessel Automatic, Greenwich Lightvessel Automatic and Sandette Lightvessel Automatic each get a name check at least twice a day on radio 4.Earlier this year Trinity House announced that the Channel Lightvessel will be permanently withdrawn in August 2021 and so there will be one fewer lightship in the Radio 4 forecast.