Writing a New Chapter for the Nantucket Lightship

by Holly Pretsky

If it weren’t for Bill and Kristen Golden, the Nantucket Lightship, whose blinking light was the first sight of America for thousands arriving by sea, might have been sold for scrap metal.

“She would be razor blades or barbecue grills or something,” Mr. Golden said, sitting in the stately renovated dining room of the historic red ship, which will be docked at the Tisbury Wharf until August 20.

It was an otherwise ordinary morning in 2000 when the lightship came into their lives, uninvited.

“I was not in the market for lightships,” Mr. Golden laughed.

He had just returned to Boston from work abroad when he listened to a voicemail from a friend telling him to look on the online auction site Ebay. And, incredibly, there she was. At the time she was the single largest item ever sold on the site, Mr. Golden said. It was a Wednesday morning, and the online auction was set to close on Saturday.

One of a long line of lightships, this one was built in 1950 and decommissioned in 1985. — Timothy Johnson

A longtime Massachusetts resident and maritime enthusiast, he knew the history. Lightships served as offshore lighthouses. They began to be used in the United States in 1820 to warn mariners of dangers offshore. Congress established the Nantucket lightship station in 1854 to mark the dangerous shoals south of Nantucket that claimed so many lives they came to be known as the graveyard of the North Atlantic. For many immigrants, the lights of the Nantucket, not the statue of liberty, were their first glimpse of this country. Of the long lineage of Nantucket lightships, the one on sale on Mr. Golden’s computer screen was the WLV 612, originally built in 1950 and decommissioned in 1985.

The Goldens made a trip down to an open house of sorts in Quincy where the ship was docked, just to peek at her. The scrappers were there scraping off the paint to see what was underneath: bronze, iron, aluminum. The air above their heads was full of invisible calculations.

Sure, it was a beautiful vessel, historic and imposing, but the inside was full of asbestos, and who knew what other kinds of problems. Besides, Mr. and Ms. Golden told themselves, it would be impulsive, irrational really, to make the purchase before the end of the week. The couple returned to Boston in time to drop Ms. Golden off at her classes in architecture school and for Mr. Golden to return to his office.

But he couldn’t get the boat off his mind.

“I’ve always had a problem that if I think something should be done, I do it,” he said.

He spent the next 24 hours on the phone. He called lightship restoration experts, people who had hauled lightships, lightship museums, nonprofits that owned lightships, former lightship crew members, government entities that had directed lightships. He called permitting agencies and asbestos removal experts, people who knew about mechanical systems, people who knew how to fix a three-and-a-half-ton anchor.

“By Thursday night, I was in deep conversation with my wife about bidding on this ship,” he said. He convinced her, then when he had his own doubts, she convinced him.

He calculated the value of all the metal on the ship, then added in what the portholes, foghorn, crate wheel, binnacle, and telegraphs would go for. He figured the highest bid from a scrapper would total about half of that.

They set up two computers, came up with a complicated bidding strategy partially informed by a close reading of all of Ebay’s terms and conditions — “I think I’m probably the only person in the world who’s read those,” he said. By Saturday, for $126,100, the Nantucket lightship was theirs.

Ms. Golden redesigned and rebuilt the interior, and by the end of 2002 the ship was completely refurbished. She is one of three existing Nantucket lightships, and has been chartered to everyone from pop star Janelle Monae to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“He loved the ocean, loved sailing, loved the freedom of the high seas,” Mr. Golden said of the senator. “When he died, I told the captain to chart a course for Hyannisport and weigh anchor and shine a spotlight day and night until he was laid to rest.”

The ship attracts attention wherever she goes, and photographers around the Island snapped pictures when she tied up at the Tisbury Wharf more than a week ago.

Mr. Golden said there has been no shortage of interest in her history. He said the Nantucket represents a welcoming version of America, one people want to return to.

“It represents a set of values that would be well-served by our nation today,” he said. “The lightship had a crew that every day risked their lives to save people they didn’t know and probably would never meet. It’s the best of the marine tradition: We are all in this together.”

The name of their ship may suggest otherwise, but the couple comes to the Vineyard as often as they can, usually every summer, though they missed the last two years.

“When I want to take a personal vacation — which I seldom do — I come here,” Mr. Golden said. He loves the working waterfront of Vineyard Haven, he said. Standing on the deck, he turned toward the harbor dotted with sailboats. “You can’t get this anywhere else.”

Vineyard Gazette