Sailors from antiquity to now have always been considered a superstitious bunch. And why wouldn’t they be, spending half their lives at Poseidon’s mercy. They have had to find ways to survive each voyage at sea, which is why they’d rather cross paths with a soldier than a woman, before sailing.
This is a compilation of seamen’s superstitions from all over the world. In a book by Walter Runciman on 19th century sailors, “Windjammers and Sea Tramps, a chapter is devoted to “The Seaman’s Superstitions and details a slew of boater’s myths. Runciman says seamen can’t help it: “The sailor’s calling makes superstition a part of his nature.
Avoid these days
Nineteenth century sailors were said to loathe sailing on Fridays. The first Monday in April and second in August were also steered clear off, and both have biblical explanations: the former the day Cain slew Abel, and the latter the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. In the West African country of Ghana, Tuesdays are no-go days for boaters and fishermen. Tuesdays are days for the fish to rest, and ensure plentiful harvests on other days of the week.
Silence is golden
The sea takes a life of its own for sailors and is always a force to be reckoned with. Whistle or sing into the wind, and sailors say a storm is likely to follow. Likewise some words have to be avoided at all costs at sea: pig, egg, cat, hare, church, good-bye, rat, dog, salt and clergyman. And one that is quite obvious: drowned.
In Runciman’s book seamen who had debts of honor they hadn’t paid up on land were blamed for storms and other such misfortunes. The offender was fished out and severely ostracized. If someone died on board, that was generally not a good sign – the ship would sail slower, but worse was if someone wore the dead man’s clothing.
Talking of clothing
Ever wondered why seamen don earrings? Well, the saying is that a sailor wearing an earring can’t drown. Tattoos are also seen as lucky. But that’s as far as it goes with bodily functions: no hair cutting, nail trimming or beard shaving on board.
Lighting a candle and bringing a banana on board are superstitions with practical explanations, such as bananas tripping people on board. Other explanations include bananas giving crew members the runs – time wasted that could have been spent fishing, and crates of bananas bringing “vermin, snakes and other such critters on board. The no bananas on board rule is adhered to closely in Hawaii, and in Florida some charters, such as the aptly named No Bananas Fishing Charters, will have nothing to do with bananas, not even banana sunscreen.
The animal kingdom
There is no end to the role animals play in sailor lore. Black cats are actually a good omen, and sailors are happy to have one cross their path. Pigs have the opposite effect and in Yorkshire, England they were to be avoided at all costs, says Alec Gill in his “The Taboos of Yorkshire Trawlermen who Fished the Arctic Waters article. Cats were believed to have magic in their tails that could call a storm, so sailors made sure to keep their feline friends well-fed and happy. A group of dolphins swimming around can only be a good sign but being tailed by a shark or, gasp, a shoal of them, is as ominous as it gets. The belief is that sharks can tell when a ship is doomed. Also in the 19th century rats leaving a ship was a sign of impending doom. Killing birds such as albatrosses or gulls could affect one’s luck.
Seamen have a love-hate relationship with women. Many boats or ships will be adorned with naked women as figureheads, because naked women calm the sea. Yet, having a woman on board would make the sea angry or jealous, as would naming a boat after an engaged woman. In Yorkshire a sailor’s wife could not wash clothes on sailing day because he could be washed overboard.
The list goes on
Changing a ship or boat’s name without certain rites, painting a boat blue, having politicians on board, are other acts that sailors try to avoid. Do you wear certain clothes to sea, or only boat on certain days? Send us your boating superstitions.