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Superstition at Sea
Posted by Failed Success on 05/08/06 at 11:03 AM
Since 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.
It 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.
A Woman on Board is Bad Luck
It 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.
The Evils of the Banana
Bananas 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.
It 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.
Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August.
Starting a cruise on Dec. 31 is bad.
Black traveling bags are bad luck for a seaman.
Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey.
Never say good luck or allow someone to say good luck to you unanswered.
Avoid Flat-footed people when beginning a trip.
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.
Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms.
A stone thrown over a vessel that is putting out to sea ensures she will never return.
Flowers are unlucky onboard a ship.
Priests are not lucky to have on a ship.
Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck.
A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck.
Black cats are considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea.
Swallows seen at sea are a good sign.
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.
It is unlucky to kill an albatross.
It is unlucky to kill a gull.
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.
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.
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.
- Seafaring Lore and Legends by Peter D. Jeans (link goes to Amazon.com book listing)
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