Lightship sevice in Russia


Unlike the lighthouses, the history of lightships is rather short. Long before the lightships were officially filed as the regular aids to navigation, sailors used board and rafts with a balefire to mark sources and mouths of navigable rivers to find the right way in the night time. Such customs were common among pomors - Russian settlers on the White sea. During the celebrations of the traditional new year on September, 13 in Arkhangelsk, Russia such boat with fire is usually placed on the Northern Dvina river as a tribute to the customs of the ancestors. 

First officially recorded lightship was Nore, a British vessel stationed in 1732 on approaches to the mouth of Thames river. The idea to mark a safe fairway to London and to receive, in return, a fee from the ships that passed by belonged to David Avery. As he had no money to fund the new enterprise, he shared the plan with Robert Hamblin, a shipowner and enterpreneur who eventually funded it. The Trinity House that was responsible for the aids to navigation along the British coasts filed a complaint for violation of its monopoly with the Admiralty and the Crown. As a result of the debates Nore was ceded to the Trinity House, but the latter compensated Hamblin and Avery for the costs of Nore's building and ensured 5% of this amount annually as a commercial remuneration. Lightships became widely used first along the European coasts in late XVIII century, and then, during XIX century, in Americas, Australia and elsewhere. Main distinctive feature of a lightship were spheres and lanterns mounted atop of its masts.



In the beginning of the XIX century first lightships appeared on approaches to its capital, Saint-Petersburg. It all started with an accident, when two gunboats purchased from Britain by Peter the Great made a safe journey to Russia but sunk a few miles before their new home. One of these gunboats named London sat so firmly on the reef so it proved impossible to rescue or remove it. So a lantern was mounted on its mast to mark the deadly shoal, converting a gunboat to some sort of 'lightship'. Next spring the 'lightship' was crushed by moving ice, and the reef known as Londonskaya shoal was marked with a light buoy with a flag.



In 1807 Leontiy Spafariev was appointed Director of Lighthouses on the Russian Baltics. He was one of the most prominent hydrographic officers in Russia who greatly improved the aids to navigation along the Russian coastline. It was him who established a lightship position on the Londonskaya shoal. Initially the lightships were converted from the retired vessels of different kinds. For example, the shoal named above was marked with a tug named Lesch (since 1815), then a transport named Frigant, a prize of war against Sweden (1820-), hydrographic vessel Pegas (1824-). Only in 1828 Admiralty Shipyard delivered a newly-built lightship dedicated to position on Londonskaya shoal.

Early Russian vessels of this kind were built after the designs developed in Britain. The construction of the first lightship was managed by Ivan Kurepanov, who learned his shipbuilding skills while being in England. 



Another two lightship positions near Saint-Petersburg located at the ends of the Bolshoy Korabelniy (or Nevskiy) and Yelaginskiy fairways at the mouth of Neva river. Many different vessels were employed as lightships on these two relatively quiet positions. In the beginning and during last days of navigation steamers were used there, as they were able to avoid collision with ice and rapidly reach the harbour.



Lightships were equipped with the same light sources as the lighthouses of the same age. Until mid-XIX century candles were used, later replaced with colza oil lamps. Early lanterns used perfectly polished silver-plated reflectors to focus the light in required plane. Every bunch of candles and every oil lamp required it's own reflector, so lanterns contained a bundle of reflectors and lamps. Lamps for the Russian lightships were manufactured by Admiralty Workshop in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia)

With the invention of the Frensel lens these started to replace reflectors. Until early XX century the sophisticated Frensel lens with a clock mechanism that ensured their rotation were imported from Europe, mostly from France and Britain. To comply with the budget constraints the Director of Lighthouses had to request a special permission from the government to import the lightship and lighthouse equipment duty-free.



Late XIX century attempts were made to introduce kerosene as the lamp fuel on Russian lightships. After a row of explosions it was deemed too dangerous for maritime use. Acetylene and electric power proved more suitable for the lightships.

Numerous shipyards in Saint-Petersburg were engaged in building lightships. Among them Izhorskaya, Putilovskaya, Semyannikov&Poletika, Crichton&Co, Novaya Admiralteiskaya and Kronstadt Shipyard. Series of vessels of this kind were built in the autonomous Great Duchy of Finland, namely in Turku, Helsinki and Vyborg, for both the waters of the Duchy and of Russia mainland. Lightships built on the Baltics were delivered to the Caspian and Black/Azov sea basins via inland waterways - rivers, lakes and artificial channels.



In 1850-ties the Emperor sealed the project to establish a lightship position by the cape Domesnas in Kurland (now Kolka, Latvia) to mark a dangerous reef where tens of merchant ships faced their death. A few foreign and Russian shipyards, including one from Riga (city that mostly campaigned to mark a safe passage around Domesnas) presented their offers. The order was placed with the British shipyard of Samuda Brothers, that priced a fully-equipped steel lightship at 38'290 rubles. In 1858 she was delivered from London to Reval, loaded with supplies and stationed on its position. Year report of the Imperial Hydrographic Department claims that once this lightship was stationed, there were almost no more accidents with ships near cape Domesnas.

The lightship was under constant stress-tests by harsh winds, storms and ice, and its design proved so successful, that the government purchased the documentation and built three more vessels of the same class in Russia. Siblings of Domesnas lightship were stationed by Revalstein (later Tallinnamadal), Kalbodengrund and Londonskaya shoals.



However, the lightships had important drawbacks. Ice made their exploitation possible only between late spring and early winter leaving sailors of the merchant ships with no aid for 4-5 months each year. During the 'winter holidays' the lightships were repaired, reequipped and repainted. The lightships built in XIX century had no engine and required a tug for a journey between their station and port, as well as for the rescue in emergency conditions, to avoid striking the rocks or getting stranded. Not long before the end of its first employment the Domesnesskiy lightship was almost crushed by storms. These were the reasons why government funded a costly and dangerous enterprise to construct an artificial island with a lighthouse at the outer edge of the underwater Domesnas reef. Construction completed in 1875 and the Domesnesskiy lightship was removed.



Lightships of early XX century, such as Srednezhemchuzhniy or Lyserortskiy (Crichton&Co, Saint-Petersburg, 1909-1910) were equipped with all the necessary cutting-edge devices such as a dynamo, electric lamps, pneumatic fog horns, wireless telegraph and radio stations. These lightships proved to be extremely durable. The last operational (not tourist attraction) steamship of Scandinavia was a converted Russian lightship Zapasniy (Reserve), built in 1912 by Putilovskaya shipyard, St.Petersburg for a position on approaches to Libava (now Liepaja, Latvia). After the WWI she was used in Finland first as a lightship (Helsinki), then until late 1970-ties as a tug. In 2000-ties she was renovated and put on public display at the old port of Hamina. The vessel retained its mechanisms allowing to make occasional journeys between harbours in Finland. This is the only surviving lightship that was built in Russia mainland (i.e. not counting ones built in the G.D. of Finland).



By 1916 the Imperial Marine Ministry maintained 30 lightships in total. The first basin by lightships count was Baltic sea, especially the waters of the Great Duchy of Finland. It was followed by Caspian sea and finally the basin of Azov and Black seas. The crew of the lightships was hired, not recruited.

Numerous smaller lightships, known also as 'Brandwachts', were maintained also by private entities - harbours, shipping and oil drilling companies. On the warmer Caspian and Black-Azov basins lightships were converted from different vessels and boats. In the mouth of Dnepr (now Urkaine) rafts were used as a floating beacon. One lightship was stationed in the White sea basin, in the mouth of Northern Dvina, near Arkhangelsk. No lightships are known to be used along the Russian Pacific coast.

The Ministry of [Transport] Communications that was responsible for the inland waterways also used lightships on the big lakes to guide and manage the freshwater shipping traffic to the sources and mouths of the major navigable rivers. In 1913 eight such lightships in total were engaged on Ilmyen and Chudskoye (Peipus) lakes in North-Western Russia. These were single-mast boats with a ball and a lantern atop their mast.

One lightship was maintained by the Customs office of the G.D. of Finland on the lake Ladoga, near the administrative border of the Saint-Petersburg Governorate and Finland. Unlike the other freshwater lightships, this was a bigger ship made of steel having displacement of 200 tonnes that survived the WWI, the Civil War after the Revolution and the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-1940.



Apart from being aids to navigation, lightships were also used to monitor the weather and stream, presenting the meteorological indications on ther masts with the special signs. Certain lightships carried out a pilot service providing pilots to guide the merchant ships from and to the nearby harbours. Lightships were a convenient place to watch after the fulfillment of the customs and quarantine regulations, and to warn the passing by sailors in case they were mistakenly going the wrong way to the rocks or shoals. Sometimes lightships crews had to come to the rescue to the sailors in distress. During WWI Nevsky lightship is known to save pilots of ditched hydroplanes.

The World War I, two revolutions and the Civil War that followed left Russia without most of its Baltic harbours and coastline along with the aids to navigation. Most of the baltic lightships came into posession of newly-established Finland and Estonia that continued their use on their positions. Latvia that lost all 3 vessels previously positioned along the coast of Courland (to Finland, Estonia and Russia) gained one of the Kriegsmarine lightships brought by the Germans and later stranded near Windau (Ventspils).



Only three lightship positions remained on the Russian Baltics, these were the first three established a century ago near Saint-Petersburg: Londonskiy, Nevskiy and Yelaginskiy. Two latter positions in 1918-1919 were occupied with a buoy, but later both lightships were returned in service until 1933 and 1924 respectively. The Yelaginskiy station, no longer necessary, was moved southward to Petrovskiy fairway and renamed accordingly.

In 1922 the hydrographic and shipping authorities (UBEKOBALT) established a new lightship on the entry into the Soviet waters of the Gulf of Finland, on Demansteinskaya shoal. A modern steam-powered steel lightship Lyserortskiy (a.k.a. Ovishi) evacuated from Courland was used on this position (she was one of the subjects considered by the joint Russian-Latvian commission on evacuated Imperial property). In 1923 году the position was moved somewhat northwards and became known as a Leningrad-Reception. The vessel carried pilots that ensured the international merchant traffic from and to the port of Leningrad. Later, on 28-30 August, 1941 this lightship, then renamed to Vostok, was destroyed by the nazis near cape Juminda during the most deadly naval battle ever, where around 15000 people were lost.

In 1930 the Leningrad-Reception station was occupied with a new lightship converted from a yacht named Astarta. It was built in Sweden for the Swedish royal family, but in 1899, a month before it was scheduled to be handed over to the crown, an enterpreneur from Russia, Brusniczyn, has purchased the yacht out. After the Revolution it was confiscated and turned into a training vessel. Once it sunk, then brought afloat and reconstructed into a lightship and pilot station for Leningrad. It survived through WWII and the Siege of Leningrad and decommissioned in 1963 being replaced with a reception buoy.



After the WWI most of the lightships of Caspian and Black-Azov basins were also lost. In the 1920-ties the lightship service on a number of older positions was renewed. By 1927 there were 10 lightships in the waters of the USSR. Freshwater lightships were never restored.

Since 1950-1960-ties the lightships were actively withdrawn from service almost everywhere, including the Soviet Union. Lightships were replaced with lighthouses erected in the sea and with the buoys. Some were adapted for unmanned, fully automatic operations. In the USSR a few lightships that remained until 1960-ties were Severodvinskiy (White sea, Arkhangelsk), Tallinnamadal (Gulf of Finland, Tallinn) and the Reception lightships by the harbours of Leningrad (Gulf of Finland) and Astrakhan (Caspian).



There were two newcomers, however. Late 1940-ties the Soviet government placed an order with Laivateollisuus shipyard (now Wartsila Marine) in Turku, Finland, for two new lightships. Both were delivered in 1961-1962. The first one, Irbensky lightship was stationed 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 along the Volgo-Baltic inland waterway system 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. Apart from a stabilized Frensel light apparatus it was equipped with a fog horn, radio beacon, two-way wireless communications station, radio direction finder, fathometer and a radar. Crew of 19 (absent pilots not counted) were accomodated in 13 cosy cabins. The Finnish-made ship was, of course, equipped with a sauna and a workshop.



Irbenskiy lightship served on its position every year from 1961 until 1985, when the new steel-reinforced concrete lighthouse was erected on Mikhailovskaya shoal. In 1986 it was relocated to approach to the Ventspils harbour and renamed Ventspilsskiy, but she never really served there for a long time.

Her sibling, Astrakhanskiy-Piyomniy (Reception) lightship remained as the last one maintained in the Russian waters. Like Irbenskiy she was scheduled to be replaced with a reinforced concrete lighthouse standing on the sea bottom, but with the economic stagnation and collapse during 1980-ties and 1990-ties these plans never came to fruition. Astrakhanskiy-Piyomniy was decommissioned in 1997 and later scrapped.

Although in the XXI century the lightships are no longer used for their direct purpose, most of major marine powers keep a few lightships as a piece of the maritime heritage and history. Some of them are part of museum exibitions, some converted into restaurants, hostels, offices or boathomes. In Germany one can even have a sea ride on a lightship.



In Russia all the lightships were lost, with exception of Irbenskiy. From 1993 till 2008 she served as watch office of the Leningrad Naval Base in Lomonosov (suburb of Saint-Petersburg), and later planned to be sold on auction as scrap metal. Mayachniy Foundation campaigned for the preservation of the last surviving lightship reaching the office of the president of Russia. Once the public concern was raised, the Ministry of Defence, owner of the lightship, has withdrawn the ship from the auction offer.

Finally it was the World Ocean Museum that has taken over the decommissioned and plundered ship, arranged her inclusion into the maritime heritage list and repair. In June 2017 it was towed from Kronstadt to Kaliningrad and moored by the museum embankment where other memorial vessels are put on display. Early July partly-repaired ship welcomed her first visitors, and since 16 December the first part of exhibition aboard the last and the only lightship on Russia has been opened for public.


Последнее обновление 2017-12-24