Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shining a light on "The Lighthouse Story"

The story goes back to at least the 1930s, although the advent of the Internet has given it viral growth: a large ship (often a battleship or an aircraft carrier) is steaming along at night when it spots a light ahead. The commander (often a medal-bedecked admiral) hails the other vessel, instructing them to change course. The other vessel refuses, and the admiral gets increasingly puffed up and indignant, finally trying to assert his lofty rank and the size of his huge vessel in an effort to intimidate the other vessel into changing course. Then comes the punch line: the other person is a lowly seaman and the other “vessel” is actually a lighthouse!

This urban legend is passed around as a true story and an object lesson in arrogance and what students of logic call the Fallacy of the Argument from Authority. It is, of course, total bilge water. Lighthouses are rarely manned these days (and never by Navy personnel), are lit very differently than ships, and of course are clearly marked on nautical charts. It’s also unlikely that two vessels, or a vessel and a shore station, would communicate that long without both of them indentifying themselves very early in the exchange. And, just like there are rules of the road governing how two automobiles must interact (the rules governing a four-way stop, for instance), there are nautical rules of the road as well, and the larger vessel, military or not, does not necessarily have the right of way.

People love this story for the way the swollen-headed admiral is cut down to size. And despite its nearly complete technical inaccuracy, it serves to remind mariners of the importance proper communications, situational awareness, and Rules of the Road (and no, the “tonnage rule” is not an actual Rule of the Road).

Posted from M/V Spirit of '98 at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers.


  1. I cannot emphasize enough Capt. Earles comments on situational awareness and communication. I recently was on a voyage up the west coast and the mate on watch woke me up some where off of Oregon in the middle of the night and said, "there is a fishing boat bearing down on me and I cannot make out his running lights". I asked the mate if he had hailed him on the radio. "No". I asked the mate had he slowed down to assess the situation. "No". Simple things to remember and keep all of us mariners safe. Enjoy the blog, keep up the writing.

  2. A recent post by Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez has given me second thoughts on the whole "argument from authority" idea. Sanchez is talking about the global warming debate within the Libertarian community, but the idea can be applied to any debate of fact: should we sometimes believe the experts just because they are experts? I'll have more to say about global warming and its impact on the maritime community soon. In the meantime, find Sanchez's post and the subsequent discussion at http://www.juliansanchez.com/2009/04/06/climate-change-and-argumentative-fallacies/