Guiding lights at the Australian National Maritime Museum

by David Payne

Australian lighthouses

The Commonwealth Lightship Service

The sentinel existence of a lighthouse – often sited on an isolated, forbidding coastline by virtue of its role – has become a cliché used by artists and photographers to depict a scene of loneliness. When heightened by an approaching storm as darkness settles in, the mood has immense potential for drama. For novelists it’s a gift setting in which to build a narrative laced with suspense.

In the case of a lightship, the scene must seem even more despairing. These vessels appear sentenced to float in a wilderness with little or no land nearby, standing watch over a muddy shoal or jagged rocks, tethered in place and only able to change orientation with the current, wind and waves.

For those aboard a staffed lightship, their role was potentially more punishment than fulfilling task, and consequently many lightships were unmanned. An automated lightship became a vessel of bare essentials, needing to support its anchor and cable, the lamp mechanism and any associated fuel to keep the light shining, and to be strong enough to survive the sea. Picture it at dusk, silhouetted against the horizon, relentlessly flashing a regular, coded sequence. If there was a swell about, the vessel’s roll would be tolled out on the brass bell. It’s not really a comforting scene to imagine, yet both the light and bell were there to help, and ships became reliant on their location to ensure a safe passage.

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An automated lightship became a vessel of bare essentials, strong enough to survive the sea. Pictured: CLS4 in Bass Strait in the mid-1980s.

Australia’s huge coastline with its varied environments has numerous dangerous locations needing the support of a beacon to ensure their visibility at night. In 1916–18 four identical ‘unattended lightships’ were built at Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney, the first built in Australia for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service (CLS).

Three of the CLS1–4 vessels
Three of the CLS1–4 vessels, c1918. Location unknown

Photographer unknown

They were designed for Breaksea Spit and Proudfoot Shoal in Queensland. Two remain extant – CLS2 is with Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane and CLS4 is with the Australian National Maritime Museum. Both are listed on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. As working colleagues, the twins shared the name Carpentaria, representing the broad location at the top of the Gulf of Carpentaria for their stations at Merkara then Proudfoot Shoals, both on Hockings Patches to the west of Thursday Island. They took turns; while one was on station, the other was slipped for maintenance and then kept on standby.

The lightships came with an impressive pedigree. The masters of lighthouse design and construction were the Stevenson family from Scotland. Internationally renowned lighthouse builders for more than four generations, they had moved into lightship design as well. David and Charles Stevenson, of the family’s fourth generation, designed the CLS1–4 vessels, preparing the plans at their office in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1915. Constructed of riveted iron and steel, CLS2 and CLS4 are almost 22 metres long and displace 164 tonnes. These are big vessels with heavy-duty engineering and this construction is their other story.

Original plan of the lightships' hull by Scottish designers David and Charles Stevenson
Original plan of the lightships' hull by Scottish designers David and Charles Stevenson

Image: ANMM

As a vessel with such a specific singular task, they are an intriguing study of functional requirements, designed and built in a classic period of engineering. The heavy iron plating is lapped and riveted together around a skeleton of deep sections for the keel supported by closely spaced frames, longitudinal and transverse web plates, stiffening flanges, brackets, posts and diagonal bracing. It’s all there and each part is cut individually and riveted at its connections, and where required backed up by the necessary bracket to ensure the connection is sound. Significant wood belting encompasses the topsides, while the external keel and bilge keels are also reinforced with brackets and support. The light tower is bedded down to the keel, and braced by four tensioned rigging wires. It seems nothing was left to chance as large margins of safety were applied throughout – understandable, as the craft had to fend for itself against the corrosive elements and even possible impact from the vessels it was there to assist.

CLS4 on the slipway in North Queensland.
CLS4 on the slipway in North Queensland

Photographer unknown

If current automated technology were to be applied, much of this would be cut by computer numerical control (CNC) from sheet material in one go, the flanges pressed at right angles and all made to high-tolerance precision and finish. In the early 1900s there was no such option, so instead the construction is closer to a big Meccano set project with numerous manual fabrications, many to an almost repetitive pattern. The vessels were hand painted by labourers whose successive layers of protection remain, and the inevitable corrosion is now part of their heritage.

For all the effort and strength that went in to support an anchor and cable and a bell, the ship’s main purpose, the light, had a nominal range of only 10 nautical miles (18 kilometres). In its final configuration this light was powered by a six-month supply of acetylene gas. The vessel then carried four A-300 size acetylene cylinders, one of the few configuration changes made to the vessels. Another change was the installation of a Southern Cross diesel engine to power the windlass. CLS4 had one added in 1950 by Evans, Deakin of Brisbane. A welded steel angular deckhouse was fitted at the same time to protect the engine.

CLS4 Carpentaria at the Australian National Maritime Museum
CLS4 brightens the waterfront at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Photograph by Andrew Frolows/ANMM

Throughout the ships’ life on station, the heavy brass warning bell that was housed in a support frame on the aft deck tolled with the rolling of the vessel, and both lightships saw their last active service in the unremitting swells and often big seas of Bass Strait, acting as traffic separators for the shipping in the oil fields. They were retired from service around 1985.

See CLS4 is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum.