A Visit to the Last Elbe 1 Lightship

Elbe 1

Published Jul 17, 2016 3:47 AM by Erik Kravets

Before the era of easy navigation, ships relied on landmarks, astrolabes to determine latitude, sextants to determine longitude, accurate logbooks, lighthouses and, where no easy land was available to build a lighthouse, lightships.

These lightships were essentially mobile lighthouses which anchored in especially treacherous navigational channels. In general they used high powered incandescent light bulbs to create a visual signal with a range of many miles. Elbe 1 was one such lightship. Above, you see the last Elbe 1 lightship, the BÜRGERMEISTER OSWALD II. Today the lightship is cared for by the Feuerschiff Elbe 1 Verein von 2001 e.V.

Elbe 1 is a designated "museum ship", which essentially means it is a cultural and historic landmark. Its permanent berth is near Cuxhaven's Alte Liebe, an old ocean liner terminal. It is kept up by a charitable association, supported by private donations and is viewable by the public. Elbe 1 also engages in period sightseeing and tourist voyages which are open to the public for a small fee.

Last week, we were on board the Elbe 1 for the first time and we can most certainly assure you, it is very worth the visit and really impressive.

Apart from the fact that the ship is in extraordinary condition, and very well preserved, most sections of the ship are open to viewing. Having been launched in 1943, Elbe 1 is truly an O.G. (for those reading who are not from Los Angeles: Original Gangsta) lightship and, nowadays, a very rare exemplar. It was not active during World War II but rather between 1948-1988, i.e. 40 years.

Its original crew of 27 served for rotations of two weeks at a time. With an overall length of 57,3 meters, and equipped with a 1500 watt bulb which would give off its light from 15 meters above the water line, the Elbe 1's signal was visible at a distance of 17 nautical miles (about 31.5 kilometers or 19.5 miles). Thanks to this, vessels inbound to Hamburg had less trouble locating the mouth of the Elbe river - which is one of the most treacherous waterways, so we assume that this assistance was most welcome.

Here's a picture of the lightbulb just mentioned:

No LED technology here!

And here is an interior shot of the Elbe 1's tower.

The crew quarters were relatively lavish.

Here is a common area, the mess hall, which includes skylights:

The hallways were relatively commodious and even had a library; after all, the crew had to be out at sea for weeks at of time.

Of course, this ship could also get down to business when required. Here is a picture of the machine room of Elbe 1. This ship had good power and had to maintain position even during stormy weather, risking it so that other ships could find their way to safety.

A decent anchor definitely helps in that regard:

If you ever visit Cuxhaven, be sure to stop in at the Elbe 1 is you are intrigued by the history of navigation. It is totally worth your time and effort!

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.