Lightship bell raised from ocean's depths

By JOHN DOHERTY, New Bedford Standard-Times

Fig 1. Lori Takakjian stands near the signal bell of the sunken Nantucket Lightship 117, which sank in 1935. She was part of the salvage team that retrieved the bell.

FAIRHAVEN - (09/03/04) The last time anyone rang the enormous bronze bell of Nantucket Lightship 117, men's lives were in danger.

It was nighttime, May 14, 1935, and the 130-foot Lightship was anchored where it always was; 50 miles southeast of Nantucket, smack dab in the middle of the terminus of the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes.

That night, the bell tolled through a heavy fog to give ocean liner Olympic -- a 47,000 ton, 900-foot-long sister of the infamous Titanic -- its bearing and guide it past the dangerous shoals. "We saw the Olympic loom out of the fog a short distance away," remembered first mate C.E. Mosher of New Bedford in a newspaper interview two months later. "The visibility was only 500 feet. A crash was inevitable. I sounded the collision alarm. We all donned life preservers. Then we waited." In the crash that followed, Mosher, the captain and two fellow crew members would be saved. Five other men on board the 117, all Cape Verdeans from New Bedford, died.

Last week, undersea recovery crews from Fairhaven raised the 1,200-pound signal bell of the 117. The bell's recovery was the climax of the hunt for the 117 and the reward for six years of study and recovery work. Capt. Eric J. Takakjian of Fairhaven's Quest Marine Services said he hopes to make the bell the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit that honors the men of the LV 117 and sheds light on the dangerous and unique history of the lightships.

Quest Marine Services spends most of its time doing research and development work for sonar and radar companies, and deploying marine equipment like tidal gauges for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. But Capt. Takakjian has developed a side passion. "Shipwrecks are our personal thing," he said. The challenge of finding, minding and recovering lost vessels has led Capt. Takakjian and four friends to learn the sea floor better than most veteran fishing boat skippers, and to become collectors of arcane maritime data like "hang-numbers" -- coordinates of where fishing gear and parted anchors were snagged and lost on something below the waves. "The recovery, and subsequent preservation, restoration and public display of the LV 117 artifacts at museums will provide immeasurable benefits to the maritime community as a whole ... by allowing their story to be told," Capt. Takakjian said.

In the Lightship 117, Capt. Takakjian, a self-taught maritime historian, finds a story worth telling. In the days before Loran, radar, sonar and satellite navigation, transatlantic shipping was done mainly by maps and stars. In the 1930s, radio and telegraph machines had helped considerably. In the United States, lightships were stationed along the East Coast. The boats would stay anchored at a designated coordinate, flashing a bright light at night, bouncing a radio signal across the waves. Ships traveling toward the country would get within range of the lightships by following shipping lanes, and then latching on to the radio signal and following it in. Capt. Takakjian said a lookout on the incoming vessel would then keep an eye peeled for the lightship and adjust the ship's course to avoid collision. "That's how it was supposed to work, anyway," he said.

Four months before the Olympic struck the 117, the luckless lightship had been sideswiped by another liner, the Washington, the largest ocean-going vessel ever built in the United States to that point. For the crews of the lightships, monthlong watches onboard their ships were often long periods of boredom, punctuated by fear of being cleaved in half by bigger ships. A lightship service boat would ferry relief crews to the lightship every month. Capt. Takakjian said the Lightship 117 was considered the most exposed lightship on the East Coast. It was farthest from the coast and subject to the heavy seas and unpredictable weather of the North Atlantic. It also bordered the triangular swath of sea known as the Nantucket Shoals, where water depth suddenly decreased and where dozens of ships have run aground and been pounded to pieces by the surf over the years.

The last Nantucket Lightship was taken out of service in 1983. Capt. Takakjian, whose mother was a naval historian, had long wondered about the location of the sunken lightship. He began tracking hang numbers in the general area of the known lightship station, which is in what was once a rich cod fishery and is now known as the Nantucket Lightship closed area -- a no-go zone for fishermen. Within a two-mile radius of where the wreck would be found, 45 hang-numbers had been recorded. "Whatever was down there was heavy," he said.

Using underwater sonar, a crew of Sea Rovers -- underwater recovery experts -- found the lightship in 1998. In breaks from Quest's contract work, underwater crews have removed the dense tangle of anchor chain, nets and other fishing gear that have accumulated on the 117 in the past half-century.

Several previous recovery missions brought the ship's helm, portholes, telegraph, signal light and binnacle to the surface. Those items have been displayed at a Sea Rovers conference in Boston this spring. But Capt. Takakjian hopes to have a much more complete exhibit of the lightship artifacts -- perhaps based at New Bedford's Whaling Museum -- completed by spring 2006. It would be a glimpse into the work done by the Lightship Service during its 90-year run -- work that is now handled by satellites and buoys, he said.

In the meantime, the restoration work on the bell continues at Quest's headquarters at Capt. Takakjian's home on Sconticut Neck. Capt. Takakjian said he was surprised to find the lightship intact. Reports from survivors described the smaller vessel being cut in half by the giant Olympic.