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Wreckers and False Lights
Applying some rational logic to the question of whether ships were lured by false lights


A long time ago, before ships had GPS, and before there were enough lighthouses to warn navigators off the dangerous coast and rocky outcrops, ships sometimes came to grief on the rocks. At sea in a storm it is difficult to know which way to steer to be safe. Even in modern times with computer technology, ships still occasionally run aground, so it's no surprise that in the old days, shipwrecks were tragically common.

Most of the ships which have become shipwrecks have been sunk or wrecked by accident, storm, mechanical failure, or mistake. However, there's a generally held belief that a long time ago there used to be on-shore piratical folk who would lure ships to their doom by means of "false lights". The idea is firmly believed by some, and also firmly disbelieved by others. However, science isn't a matter or rumour and belief. So, let's try to sort out what's really going on, by evidence.

Firstly, it is a fact that there were people known as "wreckers". They inhabited coastal areas, and if a ship ran aground and was wrecked on their piece of shore, they would salvage the shipwrecked remains. Survivors of the shipwreck, already not in a good mood because of the horror of destruction on an inconvenient unwelcome piece of land which appeared unexpectedly, would be infuriated to see the locals carting-away the booty which had previously been the worthy ship on which they had recently been afloat. The "wreckers" might have shown indifference to the plight of the survivors, and possibly even hostility. However, the question is: Did the "wreckers" (salvagers) actually cause the ship to be wrecked?

There are a variety of stories about the methods of deliberate wrecking. Witchcraft would be high on the list of methods, but later the emphasis changed and it was more commonly believed that wreckers lured the ships onto the rocks by means of false lights. In popular fiction, the scene is typically depicted as a dark night and the stricken ship being tossed about by the storm, and on land there are some folk in period costume waving lanterns about in some vague way, and the helmsman of the ship steers towards the false light and onto the rocks. Much doubt is cast on that idea, for various good reasons:

For one thing, it's known that ships are supposed to steer AWAY from lights. Hence the idea of lighthouses! However, this idea has too many assumptions included, which I'll explain later. Another thing is that in the historical reconstructions, it seems hardly believable that old-style lanterns being waved about on shore could possibly be in any way something to attract ships. Remember though, the actors they get to play the role of the wreckers are not instructed in the art of ship-wrecking, and have no idea of a plausible convincing way of waving a lantern around to effect the luring of the ship. Plus, the whole business of "wrecking" whether it be as a type of opportunist salvage or as a more sinister matter of "false lights", is not the sort of thing people boast about to their grandchildren, and so the story is clouded in mystery and murk, and now it seems to have become a matter of believing things which may or may not be FALSE.

There are some facts which have to be considered about old-style navigation at sea. For one thing, at night in a storm in the open sea, in the old days, if you're steering a ship, you have almost no clues as to which way is which, and you probably don't know exactly where you are either. So, even with a soggy map and a spinning compass, it is far from obvious what to do. You have to rely on scant clues, to the extent that any horizon can be seen, and any distant lights, shadows, etc.

If you can see a lighthouse, you know to avoid that piece of the sea, as someone has gone to a lot of trouble to build a tower with a light on it. However, if there are no lighthouses, then which direction is safe open water and which direction is dangerous coast? You don't know. However, suppose you happen to spot a ship in the distance, with its lights gleaming far away, there's a good chance that there's water inbetween it and you. Therefore, that is a pretty good guess as a direction to steer. If that is a real ship, with real lights, it's a good bet. But this is where "false lights" come into meaning...

At night, at sea, it's far from obvious that the distance is land or sea or sky. A ship in the far distance moves about in a particular way, and the lights move relative to the surface of the sea, which is itself moving. What ship-wreckers are alleged to do is to move hand-held lanterns about in such a way that they mimic far away ships. The wreckers' lamps are held on land and high up (sometimes on cliffs) so they appear to be higher-up in the picture, and in a false perspective, there is an impression that they are much further away, and on the sea.

To draw an analogy, if you were driving along a road at night in a wide open landscape, and there were no streetlights, it's only your car headlights that give you a clue on where the road is. Ships don't have headlights. So, if some joker is operating a radio-controlled car with tiny lights on the other side of the road, you might interpret it as a full-size car half a mile away! This is the type of thing the "wreckers" (piratical scoundrels) did, whereas "wreckers" (salvagers) did not do that.

Whether this ever happened is something that's argued about. However, if the stories are groundless, then why would the problem be described as "false lights"? They're not false for an arbitrary reason, and they're certainly not pretending to be a lighthouse. They are false in order to pretend to be something they are not. It is this mimicry which is crucial to the idea of "false lights".

Another thing which makes the idea of "false lights" have some credibility is the type of story where the wreckers would parade along the sea-front very slowly with a donkey and the lantern hanging from the donkey's neck. If it's all a made-up story, then why invent an idea that someone would go to the trouble of having an animal to carry a lamp? Also, why is it supposed to be going "slowly"? I would speculate that the nodding motion of the donkey walking along slowly would have a motion which to a distant observer would appear like a ship in the far distance.

Surely someone can write a Java application in which the motion of a lights on a distant ship in a storm can be compared with some "false lights" placed at a crucial height in the scene and waved in a particular style?

Similarly, in terms of a modern trick of the light, a blinking red and green LED on a lure on the end of a fishing line, might for an instant be mistaken for a distant aircraft.

Of course none of this proves that wreckers in any sense actually performed any trick of the light using "false lights". However, it does get rid of some of the more naive notions which allow the denial to be credible.

Now moving to the present day, it may seem that folks in the past were too easy to deceive? Yet, there are scary modern equivalents to "false lights", and you have to beware of them to save yourself from various problems. In the highstreet, you see banks and they seem to be quite real with their bank-like architecture and their posh office suites, and the idea that someone could pretend to be a bank when they are not, well that's just silly? However, an effect similar to the perspective of the distance can be performed, and various scoundrels sometimes pretend that they are banks! They send out stupid messages with bank logos on them, and such e-mails sometimes fool people into believing that they are really the banks they pretend to be. However, if you look closely enough, you might just spy in the moonlight, an ass near the false light. In this analogy, it is the hover-over click-here web address which is the ass in question. Don't let them make an ass of you! If you know how to read a web address, then you may be able to save your bank balance from bankrupt-sea.