Irbensky Lighship


During the 1950-ties the international cargo turnover of Riga commercial harbour increased sharply. However, as all the vessels bound to Riga from overseas have to pass through the dangerous Irbensky strait that lacked aids to navigation, freight and insurance costs increased even more, what required promt actions. While most of the maritime powers were actively retiring their lightship fleets or converting them into automated unmanned vessels, Soviet government placed an order with Laivateollisuus shipyard (now Wartsila Marine) in Turku, Finland, for two identical new lightships. Both were delivered in 1961-1962. The first one, Irbensky lightship was moored by the entrance to the northern deepwater fairway in the Irbensky strait, roughly mid-way between north-western Latvia and Saaremaa island, Estonia. The second one went all the way through inland waterways: rivers, channels and lakes to the Caspian sea and moored on approaches to Astrakhan, by the mouth of Volga river.

№852 class lightships were known as the last manned vessels of this kind built in the world. Their design was based on extensive international experience of lightship building and maintennance, and their modern and highly sophisticated equipment was ordered from the leading Finnish, Norwegian, German and Russian suppliers.



Tech specs

Max length - 43,4 metres, max width - 9,5 metres, draft (fully loaded) - 3,8 metres, displacement - 672 metric tonnes.

Speed - 8,7 knots, average economical speed - 7 knots, main engine power - 375 horse powers.

Crew of 19 was accomodated in 13 cabins for one or two persons. Fuel reserve - 90 metric tonnes, lubricating oil reserve - 3, fresh water - 40, what allowed the vessel to take 10 days of sea journey and to keep heating and electricity facilities engaged for 120 days. Water and food for the crew were reserved for 50 days of normal seaborne life.

The hull was split by seven watertight bulkheads, so the ship would keep afloat if two adjacent sections (out of 8 in total) were damaged. For heating an oil-powered steam generator was used. A 2-tonnes strong crane was installed on the main deck to board the supplies and to haul the pilot's motorized boat. Besides that two lifeboats were also reserved for the crew.


Lantern of Irbensky lightship, manufactured by AGA, Sweden


Main mast, a steel tube, had a latern on its top and two ladders - inside and outside. The light device that beamed from 17,5 metres above the sea level was supplied by AGA, Sweden, one of the world leading manufacturers of the lighthouse equipment. Range of it's visibility was 12 nautical miles. Its Frensel lens having focal distance of 250 mm. was stabilized in a horizontal plane with a pendulum system with a counterweight inside the keel.

Irbensky lightship was also equipped with a pneumatic fog horn LIEGE-300 made by AGA that had a range of 4 naut. miles. Its four sound emitters were mounted on the second mast by the stern. A Russian-made radio beacon MRM-54 utilized 15-meter long wire antenna mounted between both masts. Using Morse signals it transmitted letters PM (from Russian "Plavuchiy Mayak" - floating beacon or lightship) that could be received within range of 15 nautical miles around the ship. The horn and radio systems were synchronized, so the sailors could easily calculate their distance to the lightvessel measuring the delay between the radio signal and the horn sound. Besides the vessel was equipped with a duplex radio, radio direction finder, fathometer and a radar.

Extract from the Lights and Signals Reference Book, 1979, explaining the lightship's signals

Lightship positions

The lightship was first positioned in the Irbensky strait on August 2, 1962. Since May 5, 1963 it was routinely put in service at 57  deg. 51 min. North, 21 deg. 37 min. East. Normally its watch lasted from early April till early December. The supplies and a new shift of crew were delivered from Ventspils, where the vessel spent winter. Every second year the lightship was docked at the shipyard to renovate the main and auxillary diesel engines. Although Irbensky lightship was equipped to provide a pilot to the ships sailing to Riga, she was never used for this purpose. During 24 years of service she never faced severe accidents: in 1969 a hurricane ripped off her 2.5 tonne anchor, in 1982-м the rear mast was broken and was replaced along with the fog horn it carried.


location of the lightship and fairwys on the Soviet naval map, 1960-ties


In 1985 the new steel-reinforced concrete lighthouse on Mikhailovskaya shoal was completed. It was dubbed Irbensky, exactly as the lightship it was supposed to replace. The lightship was then moored at the beginning of the deep-water fairway ending at the ice-free port of Ventspils. However, the new position turned out to be more dangerous so it was deemed unreasonable to maintain a lightship position there.

As the lightship belonged to the General Directorate of Navigation and Oceanography of the ex-Soviet Ministry of Defense, it had to be withdrawn from Latvia according to the treaty with Russia. In 1993-1994 she sailed to Baltiysk (Kaliningrad region), and then to Saint-Petersburg where it joined the #607 Division of the hydrographic fleet.


Irbensky lighship (top) and the new Irbensky lighthouse (bottom)


During the next 15 years the Irbensky lightship was moored in Lomonosov and used to accomodate the daily watch of the hydrographic fleet division. There were numerous ideas on how to employ the retired vessel: from transferrig it to Latvia to converting it to a sailing casino. Its main mast with a lantern was supposed to be removed and put ashore as a beacon. This was done to Astrakhansky lightship, but Irbensky retained its mast and most of the equipment.


Auction information on Irbensky lightship


As the last captain of the lightship passed away, the rest of the crew was permanently relocated from the vessel. In 2009 Irbensky was decommissioned and put on auction as scrap metal initially priced at around one million rubles ($35'000.) 

Once the Mayachny Foundation learned about the plans to recycle the vessel, we started to campaign for the public attention to the grim fate of the last lightship survived in Russia. In Documents section you will find the official letters we dispatched to various government institutions and to the President of Russia. There were several newsreels about Irbensky shot and aired in 2009-2010 where we participated or provided the information via this web-site established in 2009. We participated in the conferences and learned many people who shared our concerns. Ventspils Free Port (Latvia) authorities was firm in their intentions to purchase and renovate the ligthtship  to put her on display at one of her previous places of service.


Irbensky lightship on it's position in Irbensky strait


Finally the lightship was taken over by the World Ocean museum based in Kaliningrad, Russia. The museum posessed great experience in operating a memorial fleet in both Kaliningrad and Saint-Petersburg. Its director, Svetlana Sivkova, and deputy director of its affiliate in Saint-Petersburg, Pavel Filin were passionate about saving the lightship despite the issues with property transfer and shortage of funds. The lightship was included into the maritime heritage list and in October 2016 delivered to the Kronstadt Shipyard (KMOLZ) for repair.

Eight months later, 29 June 2017 the newly-painted Irbensky lightship was towed a long way from Saint-Petersburg to Kaliningrad and moored at the World Ocean Museum's memorial fleet embankment, where it's renovation continues. However, on the Day of the Kaliningrad city, 8-9 July 2017 the museum opened the lightship for the first visitors ever. And at night its guiding light, after 31 year of sleep, was turned on anew

In autumn, 2017 the Museum started to set up the permanent exhibition on board of Irbensky lghtship. Handwheel, radar and other equipment were installed back in the first few renovated rooms aboard, along with the models of the vessels and Baltic lighthouses, and interactive kiosks.

On December, 15 same year the exibition was opened for the club of the 'Friends of Irbensky', those who assisted the Museum in preserving and renovating the lightship. Since the next day the vessel has been open for all visitors of Museum. But there is still a lot to do on board: the interiors, the engine and many different pieces of equipment are scheduled for repair, and the exhibition is planned for further expansion.


Irbensky lightship in Kalinigrad downtown, by the Museum of the World Ocean


Последнее обновление 2017-12-24