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Joe Floyd: The Lightship Relief

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 1/11/2004. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Joe Floyd served aboard the U.S. Coast Guard lightship Relief in the 1950s. Anchored far offshore, the Relief carried a bright beacon that warned sailors away from "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," the great shoals that have wrecked so many ships off the North Carolina coast. Lightships like the Relief protected coastal shipping here from the 1820s to the 1960s.

Now living in Wilmington, Floyd recently accompanied a boatload of schoolchildren to one of the Relief's old anchorages, Frying Pan Shoals, 28 miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Fear. A manned light tower built on tall pilings replaced the lightship there in 1965, but the Coast Guard plans to dismantle the tower this spring. Now that ships rely on satellite navigational systems, the age of lightships and light towers on our coast is ending.

In the shadow of the light tower, Floyd told the children about surviving the century's worst hurricanes, the isolation of lightship duty and the wonders of life on the edge of the Gulf Stream.

Joe Floyd. Photo by Chris Seward, 2004.In Joe Floyd's words:
I was born on Holden Beach and my dad was a waterman. He was in the old lifesaving service and on a shrimp boat or a dredge boat up until 1948, when everybody in Brunswick County was starving to death. They moved to High Point and my dad became an upholsterer, and my mother sewed upholstery. But my dad, he loved being around the water more than anything in the world. I think the ocean gets in your blood.

I joined the Coast Guard right out of high school. All my life I had wanted to go into it. I was on the Relief lightship July of '54 until late in 1956. We relieved other lightships -- the Winter Quarter, that guarded the shoals off of Maryland; the Chesapeake, that marked the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay; and then the Diamond Shoals, that kept people off the Diamond Shoals; and the Frying Pan, to keep people off the Frying Pan Shoals.

There was a lot of talk on the lightship about its history. They talked a lot about the time during the war when it was armed. When the war broke out and the Germans started coming off the coast, they eventually pulled the Relief, like they did all the lightships, and I think a lot of the reason was that the Germans actually sunk the Diamond Shoals in World War I. They took all the crew off and set them in their longboat and torpedoed it.

To get a picture of a lightship in your mind, take a watermelon and shave the top flat. That's what a lightship looks like out of the water. It had two masts and the light was on the foremast. The ship was made for sitting at sea. It was not made for moving around much.

We were usually 25, 28 miles out to sea and in about 50 feet of water. We couldn't see land on any station, but on Diamond Shoals, on a real clear, crisp day, we could climb up the foremast and see the Hatteras Lighthouse.

We were on Diamond Shoals when Hurricane Hazel hit in '54. They brought us all the fuel and all the water we could fit in our tanks to try to make us lay low in the water, then they just left us to it. The big Navy vessels were out there riding out the storm with us so they don't get beat up at the dock, and I'm looking over at an aircraft carrier and the waves are breaking over the flight deck.

Everybody was sick except two of us. There was an engineer from Morehead City named Earl Styron and myself. Earl kept the main engine running. If something happened, we would try to keep it into the sea. As far as the deck was concerned, we had to make sure that our light and radio were operating and that we had a good lookout for ships around us.

The chief engineer on the lightship was a guy named Andrew Holeman. We lost Andrew. We didn't know where he was. Earl and myself started looking, and when we went down into the very bottom of the engine room, we could see the bottom of his shoes. He was actually lying in the bilge throwing up. He was in bad shape. We would tie the guys in their bunks and just let them have at it.

I spent most of my time on a tall stool between the wheel and the forward portholes. I would wrap my legs around the stool and put my arms in the dogs of the portholes and just try to ride it out. You could look out the portholes and all you could see was water. There was no horizon. The water was just everywhere. It's almost like you're part of the water.

When the ship is riding on the anchor, it noses down into the sea, then it will come back up and go back down again. But during Hazel it would go down into a sea and try to come back up, and another big sea would hit it. It just kind of stayed nose down and quivered.

There have been lightships sunk during storms and lost, and there's been quite a few of them rammed. The Olympic, the Titanic's sister ship, cut the Nantucket in two. That was in '33, I believe it was. There were 11 people on there and seven of them died. You knew that danger was there. You're tied down. You can't run.

When Diane came in at Wilmington in '55, we were on the Frying Pan station. We lost our main anchor, then we put our spare down and the chain on that parted. We ended up 130 miles away. Now that's not any fun. The seas were tremendous and you couldn't tell which way you were going unless you were looking at a compass. We were just trying to keep it into the sea and not flip over.

If it wasn't a storm or a heavy fog, a lightship could get tremendously boring. We'd scrape and chip and paint from the bow to the stern, and as soon as we got through, we would start right over. We did a lot of reading. In the summer we'd rig us up a line and swing out off the fantail and swim all around that lightship. We fished a lot too, especially around Frying Pan.

The lightship crews were special people. A lot of people can't take that isolated duty. You're just too confined and too alone. We all got along good together and worked together. You became more like a family on a lightship.

You know, I think about the Relief all the time. I think about morning out there a lot. There's nothing greater than the sun coming up over the ocean and the sounds and smells early in the morning. When I think about the lightship, that's usually the first thing I think about.

Night could get sort of lonely if you had the midwatch, but it's not like you're sitting out there and nothing's going on. You could hear sea life coming up for air and flipping and making all kinds of noises in the dark. You couldn't see any of it, but there were things happening all around you.
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