A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day

Thucydides? W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler? Horowitz’ First Law?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once served on a ship that had a brass plaque on the bridge engraved with the following:

A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.

This comes across as a modern sardonic saying, and I was surprised to read the name of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, on the plate beneath the saying. Is this attribution accurate? Perhaps it is a very loose translation? Could you examine this maxim and determine if it embodies ancient or modern wisdom?

Quote Investigator: The story behind this quotation is fascinating because it illustrates the malleability of sayings and attributions. Evidence indicates that this maxim which is dubiously linked with Thucydides was created and disseminated as a prank in the 1960s.

Commander W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler was the prankster, and he confessed that he initiated the deed while he was a student at the Naval War College in 1960. The tale of Hayler’s hijinks was reported by the prominent newspaper columnist Herb Caen in 1971 [BHJ]. Top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro recently located Caen’s column while investigating the quote [QUC].

Here are selected citations in chronological order. The expression under investigation is particularly relevant to the Navy, but exploring its genesis leads to another branch of the military. The following excerpt dated 1957 is from Maj. Gen. Roger J. Browne, Jr., Commander of the First Air Force who spoke at a conference of the National Guard Association. His topic was air safety [NGRB]:

But as one of my friends, the Adjutant General of one of my States, wrote me. “If we can’t afford safety we can’t afford to fly.” It was put another way in one of my headquarters where we had jet training: “A mid-air collision will ruin your entire day.”

The grim humor of this understatement follows the same blueprint as the quotation about collisions at sea. This instance in 1957 is the earliest example of this class of maxims that QI has located.

In 1958 a nearly identical phrase appeared in the magazine “Approach” which has the following subtitle on its cover: “The Naval Aviation Safety Review”. Hence, the words appeared in a periodical at the intersection of military organizations in the air and at sea [AMC]:

A Mid-air Collision Can Ruin Your Whole Day

In 1960 the phrase appeared in a novel called “The Crowded Sky” about pilots and commercial air travel. The novelist referred to pre-existing safety posters that used the quotation [CSMC]:

Nobody expected you to jam your canopy, to slam your life out on another plane’s belly just because there were more people in the other plane. Stub had even been a little proud of his quickness. And if he was a little callous, quoting the old safety poster, “A mid-air collision can ruin your whole day,” he was a friendly man, a popular man, and it was easily forgotten.

In 1962 the version of the quotation referring to a collision at sea appeared in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings. This is the earliest cite QI has located for this variant. Intriguingly, the maxim was submitted by Commander W.B. Hayler who was later identified as the prankster [NPWH]:

“A collision at Sea can ruin your entire day.”
Thucydides 471-400 B.C.
(Sign posted in wardroom of USS Buck DD-761)
Submitted by Commander W.B. Hayler, U.S. Navy

Later in 1962 the quote with its attribution to Thucydides was further disseminated via a mention in the boating section of the Chicago Tribune [CTC]:

The “United States Naval Institute Proceedings” is a publication that leavens its serious mission with the occasional light touch. Recently it quoted, from the wardroom notice—board of the USS BUCK, a comment originated by THUCYDIDES, the Greek Historian (471 to 400 B.C.). If reads—and who can gainsay its truth—”A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.”

In 1966 the saying linked to Thucydides appeared in a collection titled “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” under the category name “collision” [DQC]:

A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.
Attributed to Thucydides, 5th century B. C.

In 1966 the saying credited to Thucydides appeared in Ebony magazine in a profile of Commander Samuel L. Gravely. This provides additional evidence of the continued circulation of the maxim in the Navy [SGC]:

Aside from actual combat, hazards include electrical accidents and, odd as it may seem, collisions at sea. As a reminder of the latter, Comdr. Gravely keeps handy a card bearing a classic understatement by the ancient Greek, Thucydides. It reads: “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.”

In 1969 a variant of the expression was used by an astronaut during the Apollo 10 mission. The central goal of Apollo 10 mission was to test the mechanisms that the successor mission, Apollo 11, would use to land on the moon. The command module and lunar module separated during the flight and the lunar module approached the moon without landing before it redocked. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times [TSC]:

The 25-minute telecast began at about 1 A.M. At the time, Apollo 10 was flying over the spent lower stage of the lunar module with which the astronauts dipped down near the surface Thursday.

“He’s right down below us,” Col. Thomas P. Stafford of the Air Force, the Apollo 10 commander, said. But the craft never came into the camera’s view. “It’s highly improbable for a collision,” Colonel Stafford remarked, “but it would sure ruin your whole day if it happened.”

In 1971 Navy Capt. W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler was quoted discussing the maxim in the column of the renowned San Francisco newspaperman Herb Caen. Hayler stated that he made up the saying and linked it to Thucydides as a joke motivated by the behavior of his history professor [BHJ]:

THAT ALLEGED quote of Thucydides — “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day” — popped up all over the place in the wake of the Standard Oil spill, sometimes with the last word cleverly changed to “Bay” — and now it turns out that the great Greek historian (c.460-c.400 B.C.) never said it.

It’s funny: Navy Capt. W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler of the Calif. Maritime Academy in Vallejo confesses he made it up while a student at the Naval War College in 1960. “We had a history prof who was absolutely hooked on Thucydides,” he says. “Quoted him all day long. So I concocted that one and told everybody it was from Volume IX of the Peloponnesian War. Of course, Thucydides only wrote eight volumes.

“When I took command of the USS Buck in ’60, I had it posted on the bridge – and then things began to get out of hand. Readers Digest picked it up in ’62 and paid me five bucks.”

In 1978 New York magazine ran an article titled “Observations: All We Know On Earth”. The tongue-in-cheek subtitle promised: “As a service to our readers, we have reduced all of human knowledge to seventeen short, easily understood sentences”. The tenth sentence was [NYH]:

10. Horowitz’s First Law of the Admiralty: A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.

QI does not know how or why Horowitz was linked to the saying, and will stop here. The maxim is still popular with mariners.

In conclusion, evidence supports Hayler’s claim that he credited the saying about collisions at sea to Thucydides, and he successfully propagated it. However, the existence of a similar saying used by airmen in 1957 suggests that Hayler may have modified a phrase that was already in use by other military personnel. QI thanks you for your question and hopes you will be able to avoid all ruinous days.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro who located the column by Herb Caen and wrote about it on the Quotes Uncovered blog that is part of the New York Times Freakonomics blog [QUC].)

[BHJ] 1994 February 13 [Reprinted according to the article text from 1971 February 14], San Francisco Chronicle, More Fabulous Tales by Herb Caen, Section: Sunday Punch, Page 1, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank)

[QUC] 2010 July 8, Quotes Uncovered blog, “When Ships Collide” by Fred Shapiro, New York Times website, Part of the Freakonomics blog, Accessed 2010 November 21. link

[NGRB] 1957, Proceedings of 79th General Conference of the National Guard, Held at The Armory, Louisville Kentucky on 1957 October 7-10, Fifth Session October 9 Wednesday 9 AM, Page 139, [The speaker is Maj. Gen. Roger J. Browne, Jr., Commander, First Air Force] National Guard Association of the United States, Washington. (Many thanks to top researcher Stephen Goranson for verifying this quotation on paper at the Duke University library)

[AMC] 1958 July, Approach: The Naval Aviation Safety Review, Page 35, Volume 4, Number 1, U.S. Naval Aviation Safety Center, Norfolk, Virginia. (HathiTrust full view) link

[CSMC] 1960, “The Crowded Sky” by Hank Searls, Page 82, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) link

[NPWH] 1962 March, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Page 65 [free standing quotation at the bottom of the page], Volume 88, Number 3, The Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper) link

[CTC] 1962 September 16, Chicago Daily Tribune, “Boat Notes” by Shelly Marcus, Advertisement section, Page 17, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[DQC] 1966, “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” edited by Robert Debs Heinl, Category: Collision, Page 56, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper)

[SGC] 1966 July, Ebony, Proud New ‘Victory’ for Navy Destroyer, Page 25, Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link

[TSC] 1969 May 24, New York Times, Astronauts Set to Start Return to Earth Today by John Noble Wilford, Page 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest)

[NYH] 1978 December 4, New York magazine, Observations: All We Know On Earth, Page 145, Volume 11, Number 49, New York Magazine Company. (Google Books full view) link

6 thoughts on “A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day”

  1. Strange. I have a publication that dates back to about 1942 (grey cover black lettering) that states, “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.” and it was attributed to Thucydides. So how can someone in 1960 take credit for its origin?

  2. Check the cover of the Coast Guard Rules of the Road early ’60s. Thucydides quote is found there as well. Remember it well from my NROTC days.

  3. As a young officer, third sea tour, serving as BUCK’s Weapons Dept head in the early 70s, I was surprised to see this quote engraved on a brass plaque & posted on the bridge (not in the wardroom). Having graduated USNA in ’69 why had I never had to memorize it, tho the wisdom was irrefutable? Always wondered about it. Thanks for removing some of the mystery.

  4. I did a few simple ctrl+F searches on The History of the Peloponnesian War (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7142). I didn’t find anything like the quotation mentioned.

    Of course, I know I may not have checked all possible permutations of synonyms, and this translation may not be the one the quote is drawn from. But I found nothing even similar to the quotation in question – but many eyes may of course catch what I have missed.

  5. I qualified as OOD on a tin can in ’68 or ’69. At the time, I was well aware that a collision at sea could ruin your whole day. Now, 40-some years later, I find out where the quotation came from. Very interesting.

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