Not too long ago I was invited by the Skipper of a Chesapeake Bay Deadrise boat, the Wendy Lee. The plan was to attend a weekend long event celebrating the famous wooden deadrise boats. The boat arrived at my dock bright and early on a Saturday morning. I had picked up lunch which included fried chicken and an assortment of fruit which included bananas. My wife and I climbed aboard and Captain Anthony headed out for the bay. We made what should have been a quick stop at a marina for fuel. While Captain Anthony Glasco was pumping, what was supposed to be diesel fuel into the tank, I smelled the distinctive order of gas. It turns out the marina had switched over the diesel tanks to gas for some special project and never changed the hoses. By the time, we pumped out the gas and go back on our way, half the day was gone. Everyone on the Wendy Lee blamed it on me and my bananas and fired chicken. Who knew that watermen don’t bring fried chicken on a deadrise and they never ever bring a bananas, no matter how healthy they are. It seems when a ship carried a cargo of bananas it had to travel too fast for anyone to catch fish. Another legend has it that bananas can ripen in the hold of a ship and release toxic gases.
That was my first serious encounter with seafaring superstition. I soon learned there are a whole bunch more. There is a belief among some mariners that having a tattoo of a roster or a pig on a sailor’s feet will prevent him from drowning and lead him safely to shore. One of the stranger superstations of old salts was that women on board were bad luck and would surely bring bad luck because the sailors would be distracted and that would anger the sea gods. Yet it was OK to have naked women on board. Why they were not a distraction is a puzzle. While at the same time many ships had carved naked woman as figureheads on their bows because it was believed naked women bearing their breasts, shamed the seas and they also calmed the seas, if not the sailors.
Even deciding when to leave port was ruled by superstition.
Friday was considered a very bad choice of the day on which to begin a voyage. The origins of the superstitions stem from the fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Sunday, on the other hand was consider the day to depart because it was the day of the week that Christ was resurrected. On the other hand, Easter Sunday was a good day to depart because of the resurrection.
Having a male child onboard was considered good luck. If the child happened to be conceived on board then he might be called a “son of a gun” because the gun deck was a frequent place where a child might have been conceived. That is if the sailor was not too into the suspicion that women onboard were bad luck.
Doubtless for centuries it has been believed that changing the name of a ship was bad luck. However, there is a renaming ceremony that should, if you’re lucky, get you off the hook with the evil spirts that control good and bad luck. The ceremony requires the Captain to write the name of the boat on a piece of paper than putting the paper in a wooden box then burning the box. One the ashes of the box and all have cooled, they are to be thrown into the sea.
The fateful Albatross is a protected species on ships. While it is a good omen if a sailor see an Albatross, killing one is a serious violation of the superstition that seabirds carry the soul of dead sailors. Killing an Albatross condemns the murderer to bad luck. Redheaded crew members are bad luck, even villains. If a crewman is onboard a ship when a red headed woman tries to board the ship and the sailor fails to talk to the zred head before boarding, he is in big trouble luck wise.
Oddly, if Dolphins swim along with the ship it is considered a good sign that good luck will follow the ship. However, if sharks do the same thing, it is a warning that there will be a death on the ship in the near future. You really have to watch your language if you follow the superstitions of the sea. For example, saying the words “drowned”, “goodbye” or “good luck” are a definite no-no. If you happen to be a polite sailor back in the day who use those words, you were doomed to bad luck.
If you were a sailor or a passenger and were unfortunate enough to have be named Jonah, you are between a rock and hard place in that a person named Jonah was considered to be bad luck based on the biblical passage concerning Jonah. A Jonah would be someone onboard who jinxed the ship.
Superstition has it that a cat onboard a ship can be a great predictor of weather. It was believed that if the ship’s cat licked its fur against the grain, a hailstorm was imminent. If she sneezed, you better get yourself a raincoat. If the cat got playful, the wind was about to blow. If the old cat approached a person then stopped and took off, bad luck was about to happen. If on the other hand, the cat approached good luck was sure to happened.
Cooks on the old sailing vessel had to be careful to crush old egg shell before dumping the garbage overboard. The wisdom of the times indicated that uncrushed eggs shells provided convenient little boats for the witches to reach your boats. They must have been very small witches. The poor cooks had also to be careful to not simmer a pot of split pea soup because the steam from the soup could bubble up a fog. And, the cook had better be careful about how he opened tin cans. Opening a tin can while it is upside down, says the superstition, could cause a ship to the ship to capsize. Capsizing could also be caused by someone leaving a shoe upside down.
Bringing flowers on a ship is a sure sign those same flowers will be used in a funeral wreath. It was pretty easy to break the rules of ship superstations. Wearing the color red, was definitely bad luck. Carrying a black bag onboard is bound to bring misfortune. And, you better not have your priest friend bid you farewell because his presence may be an omen of an impending funeral. Anyone need also be careful about how they walk onto the ship. If your left foot is the first to strike the deck, it would, of course, mean you got the voyage of on the wrong foot. Once you get on the ship and it gets underway, you better not look back toward shore because you may very well trigger a rough trip. And, God forbid you throw some stones into the water, for whatever reason, you will have been the turning a calm sea into a torment of wind and waves.
If the flag happens to get damage it had better not be repaired on the quarter deck or there is no telling how much misfortune will descend on the ship. If for some strange reason, you were thinking about throwing a cat overboard, may because the cat caused it to rain, aside from it being inconvenient for the cat, it will bring any number of disasters to the ship and all who sail her. Now if a dog happens to be looking for the cat you did not throw overboard and the cat is hiding near the fishing tackle, there is a really a problem that this situation will trigger bad luck.
I suppose the sailors seemed to be shaggy and unshaven in pictures of the men who sailed the sea. The reason maybe that it was considered unlucky to cut hair, bear o nails during the voyage. One would then have to assume that baths were not a big feature either.
One of the more curious superstitions has to do with St Elmo’s fire. St Elmo’s fire has to do with an electrical phenomenon that has occurred on ships at sea for centuries. The masts actually glowed with an eerie glow to which sailor have attributed all kinds of powers. The scariest of which is that the sailor will die with in just one day. Now if that did happen there would be another whole set of superstitions that take over when someone dies on board. Being a sailor on a tall ship was tough enough because of bad weather, poor provisions, mean captains and leaky ship. Added to their difficulties was their having to remember all the superstations they needed to head, less that because a victim.
Certainly, one of the more colorful seagoing rituals is the one performed when a ship crosses the equator. In a letter to his wife Elenore, the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it in this way: “Marvelous costumes in which King Neptune and Queen Aphrodite [sic.] and their court appeared. The Pollywogs were given an intensive initiation lasting two days, but we have all survived and are now full-fledged Shellbacks”. It has been practiced by sailors for centuries and having crossed the equator has been considered a badge of courage. Sailors who had made the crossing often sported a pierced earlobe in which they wore a gold hoop earring which, of course, was sure to bring them good luck and prevent them from drowning which, you must admit would be a bit of good luck.