Anyone who has heard the strange phrase ‘Channel Light Vessel Automatic’ as part of that mysterious daily national ritualistic chant of the Shipping Forecast will have wondered at its meaning. Perhaps it is the multiple possibilities of meaning of ‘light vessel’ or the strange addition of ‘automatic’ at then end that makes it such a rich and evocative phrase.
According to Wikipedia “a light vessel is a ship which acts as a lighthouse, usually anchored permanently and having no means of propulsion.
Light vessels are used in waters that are too deep for a lighthouse. Instead of marking coastlines, they usually mark marine traffic routes. They are superior to a buoy for this purpose because its navigational aids are more visible. They also usually carry data recorders used in research oceanography, such as wave recorders, and may also function as weather stations.
The first light vessel was placed off the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames in England, placed there by its inventor Robert Hamblin in 1732.
Some lightships are mobile, such as relief lightships used as temporary replacements while the normal ship is in port for maintenance, and lightships which operated in Arctic waters during the ice-free summer months only, such as the Lightship Finngrundet.”
Though essentially pieces of infrastructure, they seem amazingly poetic objects – as though sprung from somewhere amongst the sketches of John Hejduk, and the phrases painted upon them add to their enigmatic quality – especially the ships with ‘RELIEF’ emblazoned on their sides.
They are bobbing around on the open sea, acting as signs for places that are invisible: names upon a marine chart, or describing the landscape at the bottom of the sea. It’s remarkable for a infrastructural/signage system to have maintained the same format over time – at least through their photographic record and across international boundaries.