A Lightship Man Looks Back

by G G Carter

An article on life onboard one of the Goodwin lightships, published in the December 1946 issue of ‘The Navy’ magazine.

I STOOD ON DEAL beach looking out towards the Goodwin Sands. Far away on the horizon I saw the white flash of the East Goodwin lightship. To my left my old ship the North Goodwin blinked against the autumn haze. Away towards the southernly end of the Goodwins the South Goodwin light arched lazily across the sky. I thought of the days before the war aboard the North Goodwin when we’d yarned, fished and made rope mats between watches. I remembered vividly the long night watches, the winter gales when all other vessels were sheltering in harbour and our tiny lightship wallowed in the troughs of seas as steep as a cliff. There were the summer days, too, when the sea was as calm as the face of a clock, and became a vast reflector, throwing back the heat of the sun tenfold. We used to look wistfully through binoculars at the cool green hills in the distance and long for green fields and shady trees. At night we’d watch the shoreward lights and the fireworks going up from the holiday resorts and wish we were with the crowds enjoying ourselves, instead of stuck out in the God forsaken isolation of the Goodwin Sands. Sometimes kind-hearted folk ashore would visit us in motor boats when the sea was calm and bring us papers, magazines, cigarettes, and fresh food, such as bread, vegetables and meat.

Even before the war in the days when everyone had plenty, food was a real problem aboard a lightship. Out of a wage of just over £12 per month we had to buy enough food to take with us to last us for a period of two months afloat. Later this was reduced to a month afloat. Life aboard a lightship today is perhaps even grimmer than it was during the war. They are only just beginning to think about building lightships with refrigerators aboard. Most of the lightships in commission today have nothing other than an ordinary meat safe for the crew to keep their food in. Bread becomes riddled with weevils and blue with mould, meat has to be eaten up right away. The butter and fat ration soon goes rancid. Conditions are arduous indeed when the relief vessel is held up by fog or bad weather.

I remember when the relief was overdue we used to have what we termed a “Tarpaulin muster,” each man contributing whatever he had in the way of food, to a general mess. Some of the lightshipmen were artists at dishing up an appetising meal from a tin of soup, a tin of bully beef, and a few dried peas or beans. We used to make ” Flapjacks” too, a kind of pancake made of flour and water. Because of these conditions it was a pretty frequent occurrence for men to go ashore with stomach trouble. There were other things, too, that made life a nerve-wracking affair at times. Some years ago the residents of a south-east coast resort complained about the noisy fog-horn of a distant lightship. I doubt if they ever stopped to think of the ordeal of those men aboard the lightship. The screaming grunt of a modern diaphone fog-horn sounding day and night for sometimes ten days or more is one of the most exquisite torments I know. So dire is the effect on the nerves that for the first twenty-four hours or so after the fog-horn had stopped I used to find it almost impossible to sleep.

In many of the older type lightships still afloat today the crew live, cook, eat and sleep all together in one large, bare fo’c’sle. A man’s hobby is an important thing on a lightship. It isn’t an easy thing to do much else other than read or write if a shipmate is sleeping in his hammock a mere few inches above your head. Sleep is very precious on a lightship, where strictest of watches are kept day and night. Even now that the war is over there is no demobilisation for the Lightship crews. Theirs is a job for life. Two thirds of one’s existence in a spot like the Goodwin Sands. Imagine it!

The winter gales will soon be roaring down on us. When you go to bed on a night when the wind is thundering through the chimneys, give a thought to the men who keep the lights burning around the danger spots of the North Sea and Thames Approaches. On their vigilance depends the safety of our passing ships and on our ships depends .