The Naval Vessel Vs. The Lighthouse Urban Legend

Here is an overused and fairly cliched urban legend that I have heard told in numerous variations throughout the years, usually to gullible newbie sailors or landlubbers.

The Scenario

The gist of the story goes like this:

A naval vessel of some type (usually a large vessel like an aircraft carrier) belonging to some navy (usually the U.S. Navy) encounters the bright light of what it presumes is another vessel, detecting it either visually and/or on its radar scopes. For whatever reason, the naval vessel cannot clearly make out what this bright light is, and the presumed vessel appears to be on a collision course with the naval ship.

After establishing radio contact, the naval vessel orders the presumed vessel to divert its course to avoid a collision. The presumed vessel replies that the naval vessel should instead divert its course to avoid collision. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, and with the navy vessel eventually making a few threats, the punchline has the presumed vessel saying, “we’re a lighthouse. It’s your call.”

The Evidence

There are even videos on Youtube of this, although they are clearly ads given the dramatic lighting and camera angles. Not to mention a bevy of other inaccuracies.

To further add weight to the “validity” of this story, many accounts quote a supposed transcript of this conversation that was released on November 10, 1995 from the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). It places the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of Newfoundland in October of that year. It reads:

Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

Americans: “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”

Canadians: “No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.”

Americans: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH. THAT’S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.”

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.” 

(Snopes Staff, 1999, paras. 2 - 8).

The Reality

There are a few problems with the transcript from the CNO. First of all, according to the Snopes Staff (1999), Admiral Jeremy Boorda, the CNO at the time, never released such a transcript (para. 29). Secondly, the USS Abraham Lincoln is part of the Pacific Fleet, so it is incorrect in identifying itself as “the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic Fleet.”

A Navy news article from 1996 notes that there are multiple versions of the story which feature different ships in various locations throughout the world or somewhere along the U.S. coastline. They also note that this story goes back some 30 or 40 years. Other versions of the story contend that the ship was the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, while others say that it was a battleship. Apparently, someone at the U.S. Air Force Academy identified the ship as the “aircraft carrier Missouri.” The problem here is that aircraft carriers are not named after states and the USS Missouri is a deactivated Iowa-class battleship. Since there are no battleships in the U.S. Navy anymore, the only vessels that are named after states are ballistic missile submarines. As for the USS Enterprise, sailors have denied that such an incident ever took place on their ship. Additionally, any radio contact with a lighthouse on the U.S. coastline would be impossible. Why? Well, for one thing there are no radios, or even a crew, on any U.S. lighthouse, anymore. Furthermore, all U.S. lighthouses have been automated for 10 years prior to that article’s release, according to the U.S. Coast Guard which operates the lighthouses. Ed Westfall of the U.S. Coast Guard is also familiar with this story and speculates that it may have been a joke concocted up by the Coast Guard to make fun of the Navy (as cited in Snopes Staff, 1999, paras. 19 – 32).

Further debunking this story of mistaken identity, former U.S. Coast Guard officer and founder of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Wayne Wheeler, says:

Unless the weather’s really foggy — and most versions of the story don’t mention fog — you can see a lighthouse from far away as a fixed white light that flashes at a set number of seconds. On the other hand, ships are usually moving and have smaller, colored lights at the fore and aft. There’s absolutely no way to mistake one for the other.

(as cited in Chadderon, 1999, para. 13).

Finally, Canadian lighthouse keeper, Jim Abram says, “I’ve been lighthouse keeping for 21 years, and no one’s ever thought that I was in anything but a lighthouse” (as cited in Chadderon, 1999, para. 14).

Beyond that, there are even older versions of the story. One is traced back to a 1931 cartoon that appeared in The Humorist of London, England. It features two men arguing over megaphones. One man is standing on the bridge of a ship while the other is on the exterior catwalk of a lighthouse. They shout:

Skipper: "Where are you going with your blinking ship?"

The Other: “This isn’t a blinking ship. It’s a lighthouse!”  

(Snopes Staff, 1999, paras. 15 - 17).

Old Sea Tales

This story is basically an example of one of those tall tales that got blown out of proportion and perpetuated by people who never took the time to dig any deeper and fact check it. While it does serve as a useful parable about the dangers of self-importance and arrogance, this story has been quoted as gospel by consultants and motivational speakers ad nauseum. The fact that versions of it have been floating around since the 1930s is a testament to its overuse. Apparently, it simply got a new lease on life in the 1990s and has continued to be circulated ever since.

Such an incident happening in the modern day would be pretty outlandish given the prevalence of GPS and other navigational instruments, including computerized voyage management systems.

A U.S. Navy buddy of mine actually tried to pass this story off as a real incident. I simply remarked that I had already heard it from other sailors many times (as I tried to keep from rolling my eyes). It was funny the first time, but it quickly loses its humorous impact after you have heard the punchline.

References

Chadderon, L. (1999, August 31). This Time, Consultants Are in the Dark. Fast Company. https://web.archive.org/web/20110528151136/http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/27/cdu.html.

Snopes Staff. (1999, September 10). The Obstinate Lighthouse. Snopes. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-obstinate-lighthouse/.

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