So, you are about to head off in your boat. The water is beckoning, the wind is just right. The next thing you accidentally walk under a ladder, pass a black cat and spill the salt. What do you do? Go home? Give up or throw caution to the wind and set sail anyway?
Since the first man built a simple boat and set out over the water, a vast series of myths and superstitions have developed. Even though modern techniques and vessels have changed out of all recognition since those early days, there are still those, who work and play at sea, who even now pay homage to superstitions whose origins have probably disappeared into the mists of time.
Here are a few of the superstitions I have unearthed. While there are those that appear to have some sort of historical reasoning behind them, there are others that seem to be totally illogical.
Superstitions regarding people
A woman on board is bad luck – Women were always regarded, in the past, as the weaker sex, not able to stand up to the hard physical work and emotional strain required to work at sea. Most fishermen would tell you that a woman on board made the seas angry and was a bad luck omen for everyone on board. They were thought to distract the sailors from their important duties, and thus creating chaos.. A naked woman is thought to be a calming influence on the sea. As if she was soothing mother nature. Hence why sometimes a naked woman is seen on the bow of a boat..
Red hair, flat feet are all other elements of a person that could bring bad luck.. Priests on board were also supposed to be a bad luck omen as were people with cross-eyes.
Black cats were always thought to be lucky and would bring a sailor home from sea. However, you had to treat them well, as they carried lightning in their tails and if you angered them they might sneeze and call up the wind. Similarly seeing swallows at sea or dolphins swimming with the boat were thought to be a good omen. However, a curlew brought bad luck and killing an albatross or gull, or having a shark following the boat, would bring definite disaster.
An even stranger idea was that the feather of a wren, slain on New Year’s Day, would protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck. Day and date superstitions
There are many superstitions about bad days to set out on a voyage. These seem to be mainly based on supposed happenings in the bible on those particular days, (Cain killing Abel, Sodomand Gomorrahbeing destroyed, Judas Iscariot hanging himself). The 1stMonday of April, the 2nd Monday in August, December 31st and any Friday are not good days to leave port, while Sunday is supposed to be the best day, (possibly because of Christ’s resurrection), and lead to the saying “Sunday sail, never fail”.
Unlucky plants and fruits
Even though the humble banana is thought to be the world’s most popular fruit, it is an omen of disaster to voyagers. In the 1700s, when Spain’s South Atlantic and Caribbean trading empire was at its height, it was noticed that almost every ship which disappeared or failed to make its destination, was carrying a cargo of bananas. Another theory for this superstition is that the fastest sailing ships were used to carry bananas from the tropics to US ports along the East Coast, so that they would reach their destination before they spoilt. They were so fast that it was impossible to fish from them, which did not please the fishermen. A third explanation is that on slave ships carrying bananas, they sometimes fermented and gave off methane gas which would be trapped below deck. The slaves, imprisoned below deck, would be poisoned by the gas, as would anyone climbing down to help them. They thought the gas in the bananas could create an explosion.. Finally there is the hypothesis that the fruits became unpopular because of the lethal species of spider that frequently hid in bunches of bananas. A sailor dying of a spider bite, after bananas were brought aboard, might result in the whole cargo being thrown overboard. So take your pick – there are always bananas on the boats I have sailed on and I am still here to tell the tale.
Flowers are also supposed to be unlucky on board a ship, possibly because they could later be used for a funeral wreath, implying that someone would die on the voyage. Many skippers would not tolerate a green plant in the wheelhouse. The plant roots need earth and head towards it. This should be avoided by a ship!.
Strange actions bringing good or bad luck
There are many deeds which sailors would avoid in case they resulted in danger or worse. They would never look back over their shoulder once they had left port, nor would they mention the word “drowned”, say “good luck”, or even have it said to them while at sea. The only way to have this reversed was to draw blood, usually by dealing a swift punch on the nose. Not a very friendly action to answer a seemingly kind remark. They avoided black travelling bags, probably because black is the colour of death and also symbolised the vast depths of the sea. This is presumably why priests on board were a bad omen, as they wore black and performed funeral services. Did you know that if you hear a rim of a glass ring then it could be a sign that a shipwreck is imminent? Sailors would even go to extreme lengths by not cutting their hair or even their nails whilst out at sea!. As for whistling while at sea, I have been reprimanded many times for this innocent pastime. Whistling can mean ‘whistle up a storm’ so whistling on board is not encouraged. You might encourage a storm..
To counter the bad omens, there were a range of actions which were believed to bring good fortune. Tattooing a rooster and a pig on each foot could save a sailor from drowning and starting the voyage with a clean set of teeth, ensured that the wind would be on your side. A silver coin placed under the masthead would ensure a safe and successful voyage, as would the spilling of wine on board, as this was supposed to appease the gods. Presumably this explains the origin of breaking a bottle on the side of a new boat as she is launched. Other good luck actions were to throw an old pair of shoes overboard just after a launch, for a baby to be born on board, for sailors to wear gold hoop earrings, for them to touch the collar of another sailor and to step on board using the right foot first.
The wife of a Yorkshire trawler man was as bound by superstition as her husband. She was not allowed to wash clothes as her husband set sail, in case he was washedoverboard, neither could she wave goodbye, in case a wave swept him away. You get the message? She would not dare to call out to him after he had set foot outside the door, or follow him down to the fish dock to see him off.
Superstitions connected with boat names
It was always thought to be bad luck to change the name of a boat, but if it was really necessary a complicated procedure had to be undertaken. The old name must be written down on a piece of paper and placed in a wooden or cardboard box, set fire to and the ashes scooped up and thrown into an outgoing tide. While boats are traditionally named as females, it was considered unlucky to name a vessel after one’s fiancé in case the boat was jealous. Lastly the name of a boat should never end with an “a”.
I’m not superstitious but……
Most of us would take these stories with a pinch of salt (now where does that come from?) and I hope no one is discouraged from sailing off into the sunset by this light-hearted look at sailing superstitions….. But, as a precaution, avoid red-headed men, flat-footed priests and women on deck.;…
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