At the northwest end of Jack London Square, past the ferry terminal, past the U.S.S. Potomac, past the fire and police boats is an unusual ship. It's bright red, has a tall mast, and has "RELIEF" painted on the side in large letters. And if you're like me, you've probably wondered what its story is.
It's the lightship Relief, more formally known as Lightship WLV 605. Basically a portable, floating lighthouse, it was operated by the U.S. Coast Guard until more modern, unmanned devices took over in the 1970s. WLV 605 was commissioned in 1951 as the Overfalls and was stationed in Delaware until 1960. In the 1960s it moved to the west coast and was was stationed at Blunts Reef off the coast of Mendocino. Finally, from 1969-1975, it served as a relief ship for when other lightships up and down the coast needed to leave their stations for maintenance. It sounds like hard duty, spending weeks at a time floating in the same spot, often enshrouded in fog, listening to the foghorn sound every 30 seconds. The captain had his own cabin, but the rest of the 12-18 man crew shared a not overly large bunk room. Besides a galley, kitchen and radio room, there was a hobby room for the crew to keep their minds busy when not on duty.
Now the Relief is a floating museum operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Society, with tours available most Saturdays and Sundays. The tours are free, and take you all over the ship. For a nice virtual tour, check out the interactive panoramas from the Relief here.