When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way…
- Stevie Wonder
Mariners have always been an extremely superstitious lot. This is because out on the open sea you can feel so small, insignificant and vulnerable — especially in the face of bad weather or when a leak springs — that you’ll accept any extra help and hope you can conceive of. But more likely it is because mariners of the past were quite an ignorant working class, and religions of the time exerted an inordinate amount of mystical influence on people’s thinking. The best argument attesting to this supposition is the fact that a disproportional number of seaborne superstitions are biblically based.
For example, it is considered bad luck to begin a voyage on the first Monday in April, the day Cain slew his brother Able; same goes for the second Monday in August, the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
The most avoided day to embark is ANY Friday, the day Christ was crucified. There’s an old tale that has never been absolutely confirmed or refuted of the 19th-century British Admiralty attempting to dispel this cardinal myth. They decreed that the keel of a new ship be laid on a Friday; she was named HMS Friday, launched on a Friday and finally sent to sea on a Friday. Neither the ship nor a single member of her crew was ever heard from again.
There’s a whole host of superstitions involving bananas, especially among fishermen. Bananas onboard are thought to keep the fish from biting and several explanations have been offered. Hawaiian’s would go out in dugout canoes and fish for weeks at a time. They would always take bananas which would rot about the same time they got too far out to really catch any fish so bananas became associated with bad luck. Further, transoceanic crossings in the 17th and 18th centuries were very risky endeavors and vessels often stopped in tropical islands to gather additional provisions, including crates of bananas. Those crates would host all manner of potentially deadly critters such as bugs, spiders, vermin and snakes that made their way into the bilges of the ships, multiplied and then found their way into the quarters. The captains surreptitiously circulated rumors that bananas were bad luck in an attempt to keep the critters off the ship and out of the cabins, and the crew and passengers were more than eager to follow suit because of the already inherent risk of the voyage.
To this day some charter boat crews extend the prohibition to any banana-related food or product that merely has the word ‘banana’ on it, like Banana Boat sunscreen or clothing items from Banana Republic. It has even been reported that in some big-money fishing tournaments crew
members are checked for what brand of underwear they are wearing. If ‘Fruit of the Loom’ is discovered they are seized by the crew and given a ‘wedgie’ to expose the offending label which is then exorcised with a fillet knife. Interestingly, the label doesn’t even have a banana on it.
There are literally countless nautical superstition, some easy to derive, others not so much:
• A common fishing superstition holds that if you count the number of fish you caught, you will catch no more that day.
• A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death. This superstition is founded in the belief that sharks have the ability to sense those near death.
• Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck. Killing one will bring bad luck.
• Sighting a curlew or a cormorant at sea is considered bad luck, while swallows seen at sea are a good sign.
• A lover’s superstition states that if a woman sees a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day, she will marry a sailor. If she sees a sparrow, she will marry a poor man and be very happy. If she sees a goldfinch, she will marry a millionaire.
• Superstition states that it is unlucky to kill a gull, as these birds are said to carry the souls of sailors lost at sea, while three seagulls flying together, directly overhead, are a warning of death soon to come.
• 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 redhead before they speak to you.
• A stolen piece of wood mortised into the keel will make a ship sail faster.
• Disaster will follow if you step onto a boat with your left foot first.
• Throwing stones into the sea from the deck 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. They could later be used to make a funeral wreath.
• Women on board a ship make the sea angry, while a naked woman on board will calm the sea. This is the reason for naked figureheads.
• 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 onboard are actually considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea.
• Handing a flag through the rungs of a ladder is bad luck.
• Loosing a mop or bucket overboard is a sign of bad luck.
• Church Bells heard at sea mean someone on the ship will die.
• St. Elmo’s Fire around a sailor’s 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.
• And lastly, never say the word “drowned” at sea… for obvious reasons.
Soldiers claim, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Most of us have never been in a foxhole but the emotions must be similar to being out in the blue water when the sea starts roiling, and you start murmuring that old aphorism, “The Lord protects damn fools… and sailors.”