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Superstition at Sea

Posted by Failed Success on 05/08/06 at 11:03 AM

Superstition at SeaSince the first rudimentary vessel was placed on the ocean’s surface, seafarers have developed and observed a stringent set of myths and superstitions.

One of the most entertaining shows and television right now, in my opinion, is the Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. The show features the adventures of several fishing vessels during their Alaskan crab fishing seasons.

Of all the interesting things I have learned from the show, one thing that really peaked my interest was the maritime myths and superstitions.

Deadliest Catch highlights the hard work and the dangers involved in the very profitable business of crab fishing. They employ the most modern technology and techniques right along side age old maritime tradition to ensure they have the safest and most profitable harvest.

Superstition at SeaIt was interesting to me that, even on these very modern boats, the captain and crew of these ships continue to pay homage to some superstitions that are as ancient as seafaring itself. Many of the fishermen have been in the business since they were young and their families have been fishermen for countless generations. It’s amazing how well the traditions, techniques, as well as the superstitions are passed on from one generation to another.

Confronting danger and uncertainty on a daily basis, they tend to be conservative, even superstitious, about how they conduct their work. Since their success and survival are linked to elements they cannot control (including the weather, the migratory habits of fish, and the market price for their catch) or can influence only indirectly, if at all (such as a dwindling supply of fish, government regulations, and international treaties), fishermen put great stock in things they can control.

As extraordinary and unbelievable as some of the superstitions could be, I found myself wanting to learn more about all of the different superstitions as well as the reasoning (if there is any) behind them. Here are just a few of the many maritime superstitions.

A Woman on Board is Bad Luck

Woman FigureheadIt would be most beneficial to start with probably the most popular superstition. Almost any fisherman will tell you that having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard.

It was traditionally believed that women were not as physically or emotionally capable as men. Therefore, they had no place at sea. It was also observed that when women were aboard, men were prone to distraction or other vices that may take away from their duties. This, among other things, would anger the seas and doom the ship.

Interestingly enough, there is a way to counter this effect. While having a woman on board would anger the sea, having a “naked” woman on board would calm the sea. Imagine that. This is why many vessels have a figure of a woman on the bow of the ship, this figure almost always being bare-breasted. It was believed that a woman’s bare breasts would “shame” the stormy seas into calm. Alas, the ancient power of female nudity.

Read more about the superstition of women being back luck.

The Evils of the Banana

BananasBananas are a mainstay of most cultures and are the world’s most popular fruit. However, these deliciously yellow treats have no place at sea. Since the 1700’s, it has been widely believed that having a banana on board was an omen of disaster.

In the early 1700’s, during the height of the Spanish’s South Atlantic and Caribbean trading empire, it was observed that nearly every ship that disappeared at sea and did not make its destination was carrying a cargo of bananas. This gave rise to the belief that hauling bananas was a dangerous prospect. There are other documented origins to this superstition as well.

Another explanation for the banana superstition is that the fastest sailing ships used to carry bananas from the tropics to U.S. ports along the East Coast to land the bananas before they could spoil,” Chahoc said. “The banana boats were so fast that fishermen never caught anything while trolling for fish from them, and that’s where the superstition got started.

Another theory is that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented and gave off methane gas, which would be trapped below deck. Anyone in the hold, including cargoes of imprisoned humanity, would succumb to the poisoned air, and anyone trying to climb down into the hold to help them would fall prey to the dangerous gas.

And finally, one of the better known dangers of bananas at sea, is that a species of spider with a lethal bite likes to hide in bunches of bananas. Crewmen suddenly dying of spider bites after bananas are brought aboard certainly would be considered a bad omen resulting in the cargo being tossed into the sea.

Any of these scenarios could be the reason behind fishermen’s mistrust of the yellow fruit, possibly all of them. Whatever the case may be, it is best that you don’t attempt to bring any bananas on board your next seafaring excursion, just to be safe.

Read more about the Banana superstitions.

Unlucky Friday

CrucifictionIt is believed that Friday is the worst possible day to start a journey on a boat and no enterprise can succeed which commences on that day.

The most well known reason for the dislike of Friday is because it is believed that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Therefore, this day must be observed and respected and will be unlucky for anyone who attempts to go about business as usual. Many fishermen state that various ships lost at sea disembarked on a Friday.

While Friday is the worst day to begin your journey, Sunday is the best possible day to begin a voyage. This observation is due to Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday, a good omen. It has led to the adage, “Sunday sail, never fail”

Some more maritime superstitions:

Never start a voyage on the first Monday in April.
This is the day that Cain slew Able.

Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August.
This is the day sondom & gommrrah was destroyed.

Starting a cruise on Dec. 31 is bad.
This is the day Judas Iscariat hanged himself.

Black traveling bags are bad luck for a seaman.
Black is the color of death and indicative of the depths of the sea.

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey.
Red heads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the red-head before they speak to you.

Never say good luck or allow someone to say good luck to you unanswered.
If someone says “good luck” to you, it is most assuredly a bad omen and sure to bring about bad luck. The only way this can be countered is by drawing blood. A swift punch in the nose is usually sufficient to reverse this curse.

Avoid Flat-footed people when beginning a trip.
They, like red heads, are bad luck. The danger can be avoided by speaking to them before they speak to you.

A stolen piece of wood mortised into the keel will make a ship sail faster.

A silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful voyage.

Disaster will follow if you step onto a boat with your Left Foot first.

Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck on a long voyage.
An offering to the gods.

Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms.
A sign of disrespect to the sea, ensuring retaliation in the form of stormy seas.

A stone thrown over a vessel that is putting out to sea ensures she will never return.
A sign of disrespect to the sea, dooming the ship and all aboard.

Flowers are unlucky onboard a ship.
They could later be used to make a funeral wreath for the dead, therefore, becoming a symbol that someone could die on the voyage.

Priests are not lucky to have on a ship.
They dress in black and perform funeral services. They are a symbol of possible death and anything that makes you think of death or dying is a bad omen.

Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck.
Looking back to port implies that you are not truly ready to brave the seas and complete your voyage, bringing about bad luck on yourself and the ship.

A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck.

Black cats are considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea.
While black is the color of death, and black bags or clothing are harbingers of doom, black cats are considered lucky on the sea. Mostly this is believed to be the result of the opposite effect of land based superstition, where a black cat is unlucky.

Swallows seen at sea are a good sign.
Swallows are a land based bird and seeing them at sea implies that land is near and your prospects are clear.

Sighting a curlew at sea is considered bad luck.

A cormorant sighted at sea is bad luck.

Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck.
Dolphins are considered a sacred friend of fishermen, they have the good fortunes of man in mind and their presence indicates that you are under their protection.

It is unlucky to kill an albatross.
They host the soul of dead sailors and are considered to be an omen of bad luck at sea, especially if killed.

It is unlucky to kill a gull.
They also contain the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Handing a flag thru the rungs of a ladder is bad luck.

Loosening a mop or bucket overboard is a sign of bad luck.

Repairing a flag on the quarterdeck will bring bad luck.

Turning over a hatch will cause the hold to fill with seawater.

Cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck.
These were used as offerings to Proserpina, and Neptune will become jealous if these offerings are made while in his kingdom.

Church Bells heard at sea mean someone on the ship will die.

St. Elmo’s Fire around a sailors head means he will die within a day.

When the clothes of a dead sailor are worn by another sailor during the same voyage, misfortune will befall the entire ship.

If the rim of a glass rings stop it quickly or there will be a shipwreck.

Never say the word Drowned at sea.

The caul of the head of a new-born child is protection against drowning and will bring the owner good luck.

The feather of a wren slain on New Years Day, will protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck.

A ships bell will always ring when it is wrecked.

A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death.
Sharks were believed to be able to sense those near death.

A sailor who died from violence or being lost at sea was said to go to “Davy Jone’s Locker”.

A sailor with over 50 years of service was said to go to “Fiddler’s Green” when he died.

If you have any new superstitions, myths, or explanations of some of the superstitions we’ve listed, post them in the comments and we’ll try to get them added to the list.

Further Reading:

- Seafaring Lore and Legends by Peter D. Jeans (link goes to Amazon.com book listing)
- Fisherman Superstitions from Scotland
-
Marine Superstitions at Pacific Offshore Rigging
-
Fishing Taboos by Michael Bell
- The Sea’s Living Lore at Sailnet.com

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Previous Comments

  1. tatooing a #### (rooster) and a pig on each of your feet will save u from drowning

    Posted by cljs  on  02/09/09  at  08:48 PM
  2. Do not stir pot counter clockwise or coil
    line counter clockwise.

    Posted by Scott  on  03/07/07  at  09:31 PM
  3. speaking of witches… A Boline, or white-handled knife, was the tool of witches and it was therefore considered unlucky to have any white-handled knife onboard. Seems awfully specific, but true nonetheless.

    Posted by adam the great  on  12/27/06  at  11:49 PM
  4. Passing a person on a ladder or stairway is considered bad luck, my father used to make us go back up or down if he was on the stairs at the time, I am not sure why but he was a merchant seaman.  Also if you have a boiled egg you must destroy the eggshell completely as witches would use the eggshell to sail to sea and cause a storm to wreck ships.

    Posted by wendy  on  10/21/06  at  03:04 PM
  5. Cats carry lightning in their tails and can call the wind by sneezing. Anger the ship’s cat and it may call a gale.  :coolhmm:

    Sailors pierced their ears to improve their eyesight.  A gold earring was both a charm against drowning and the price paid to Davy Jones to enter the next world if a sailor died at sea.

    Posted by Oliver  on  06/05/06  at  04:28 AM
  6. There’s quite a good reason a sailor with St. Elmo’s Fire around his head is likely to die within a day.

    In fact, it’s probably about to happen to him… just about NOW.

    “St. Elmo’s Fire” is coronal discharge due to a very high static voltage potential.  Wherever it is seen, a lightning strike may be SOON to follow!!

    Posted by Baracle Bill the Sailor  on  05/15/06  at  04:38 PM
  7. Also, whistling on the bridge is a no-no. You will “whistle up a storm.”

    Posted by kholera  on  05/14/06  at  12:10 AM