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Originally published July 10, 2013 at 8:06 PM | Page modified July 11, 2013 at 2:31 PM

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New life on Lake Union for brave old lightship Swiftsure

The 109-year-old Swiftsure, a lightship that plied the waters of the West Coast for decades, is being restored on Lake Union, where it will go on display and could be used for maritime-skills classes, art exhibits, vocational training and more.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About the Swiftsure

Lightship No. 83, also known as Swiftsure, owned by the nonprofit Northwest Seaport, is undergoing $1 million in restoration work at Lake Union Drydock. Work will continue after the boat returns to the Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park. For more information, including volunteer opportunities, see nwseaport.org

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If a 109-year-old ship could talk, we’d pose a few questions to Lightship No. 83, also known as Swiftsure, now undergoing a major restoration on Lake Union:

• How did you survive a half-century of Pacific storms, working as a floating lighthouse up and down the West Coast?

• Did you really fire a shot across the bow of a troop-transport ship near San Francisco Bay during World War II?

• What was it like to rescue 155 people whose steamship ran aground off Cape Mendocino, Calif., in 1916?

• And lastly, given your age and lengthy Coast Guard service, wouldn’t you like to spend your retirement in quiet, peaceful repose?

At this point, Shannon Fitzgerald might step in to answer. He’s president of the nonprofit Northwest Seaport, which owns the 136-foot, steel-hulled vessel and foresees no gentle good night for the lightship.

“I see its future as pretty much wide open, limited only by imagination and funding,” he said. Think maritime-skills classes. Rotating art exhibits. Meeting spaces for rent. Museum displays. Vocational training. Workshops for boat-related projects.

“A place to get away from the office, roll up your sleeves and do some fun projects with some fun people,” Fitzgerald said.

The $1 million job under way now, and another $1 million to be done as fundraising allows, is intended to set the red-hulled Swiftsure on a positive course for decades to come.

If you’re not familiar with the Swiftsure, or lightships in general, you’re not alone.

Lightships “were put in places where you couldn’t build a lighthouse on land,” said retired Coast Guard Capt. Gene Davis, head curator of Coast Guard Museum Northwest.

There were five lightship stations on the West Coast — three off the Washington coast — and dozens more in the waterways of the East Coast.

Their lights — visible for more than 20 miles — along with radio beacons and foghorns, helped direct countless oceangoing vessels to safe passage. In its early years, the ship also operated an underwater bell, which could be detected miles away, helpful in times of poor visibility.

Lightships were phased out as more sophisticated navigational equipment came into use.

Northwest Seaport, which acquired the Swiftsure for $1,400 in 1966, had used it for some educational projects in the past. But its condition deteriorated over the years to the point that a 1988 Seattle Times article called it “dying, choking slowly from years of neglect.”

Fitzgerald said Northwest Seaport board members who preceded him refused to give up on the last steam-powered lightship, a connection to another era.

The boat, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Those designations and the continued effort of the ships’ advocates, Fitzgerald said, helped it secure grants that made the current work possible, including $583,000 from a federal transportation-enhancement program and a $328,000 state heritage grant.

At Lake Union Drydock for the past several weeks, the ship’s rotted wooden deck and deckhouses have been removed, and the vessel is undergoing a thorough cleaning and inspection. It’s not clear how much time that will take.

Other work, including putting a new deck on its steel frame, will continue once the boat returns to its berth at the Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park. Seaport workers plan to allow visitors onto a safe area of the boat to see the work in progress.

Built in New Jersey, the Swiftsure spent all but the final decade of its lightship career off California.

In its early years, it used sails to help keep it in position. The ship also has large wooden bilge keels angling out from the hull to help provide stability.

During World War II, it was painted gray, outfitted with deck guns and assigned to patrol San Francisco-area waters for suspicious vessels.

Its notable war action, according to the Historic Naval Ships Association, was firing a warning shot across the bow of a converted passenger ship. The ship, carrying wounded Marines home from Guadalcanal, had failed to signal the proper “recognition code” as it steamed toward San Francisco Bay.

In 1951, it was assigned to the Northwest, where it worked as a “relief” lightship for 10 years, filling in during maintenance breaks for the lightships permanently stationed at the mouth of the Columbia River, off the Olympic Peninsula’s Cape Alava and at Swiftsure Bank outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During that time, the large white block letters on the hull simply said “Relief,” while other lightships bore the names of the locations they served.

It wasn’t until after the ship was transferred to Save Our Ships (later to become Northwest Seaport) that it was given the name “Swiftsure,” for the nearest location it had served.

Of 179 lightships built between 1820 and 1952, 17 remain, about half of them maintained as museum ships, said Nathaniel Howe, nautical archaeologist for Northwest Seaport.

Howe and a co-worker made detailed blueprints as they dismantled some of the boat’s structures, so the features can be rebuilt in faithful detail.

Many of the boat’s early fixtures will be reinstalled, including its bell, wheel and deckhouse windows.

Hobie Stebbins, vice president of Lake Union Drydock, said opening up the Swiftsure “exposes the resourcefulness of the craftsmen who built her.”

Those old-time workers, Stebbins said, would have needed to use materials available nearby. “Parts had to be small enough to handle with small cranes. Equipment had to be simple in its design and repairable by the ship’s crew.”

Northwest Seaport’s backers know that preserving a vintage vessel can be difficult. Its first major effort was an attempt to save the wooden schooner Wawona, which deteriorated at its Lake Union dock and was eventually dismantled in 2009.

Fitzgerald said the two boats are quite different: The long-neglected Wawona had widespread rot in its wooden hull, and needed $18 million in work just to survive.

Swiftsure, he said, has been maintained in better condition. Even so, it will need regular care — which translates into regular fundraising and the need to have community participation in its activities.

In addition to the Swiftsure, Northwest Seaport owns another National Historic Landmark vessel, the 1889-vintage tugboat Arthur Foss.

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com

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