Last Updated on October 18, 2023 by Brendan Hones
Sailors, given the often unpredictable nature of the sea, have historically been a superstitious lot. Here are some of the most common sailing superstitions and their explanations or backgrounds:
- Bananas on Board: One of the most famous superstitions is the belief that having bananas on a ship, especially a fishing vessel, is bad luck. This may have originated from the early days of oceanic shipping where rotten bananas could release a gas that might spoil other stored produce. Another theory is that ships carrying bananas had to travel quickly and didn’t have time to fish, thus not catching any fish was blamed on the bananas.
- Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight: This saying suggests that a red sky at night indicates fair weather the next day. In truth, a red sky can mean that there’s a high-pressure system with dry air that’s moving in. This old adage often holds meteorological merit.
- Whistling on Board: Whistling aboard a ship is believed to challenge the wind itself, potentially causing the winds to increase. Sailors of old believed that by whistling, you could “whistle up a storm.”
- Tattoos for Luck: Many sailors got specific tattoos as a form of protection or to signify sailing achievements. A common example is the anchor tattoo, symbolizing a sailor who has crossed the Atlantic.
- Black Cats: Unlike other superstitions where black cats are bad luck, on ships, they were considered good luck and believed to bring calm seas and protection.
- Naming a Ship: Some consider it bad luck to change a ship’s name after its christening. If renaming is necessary, they should perform a de-naming ceremony first, followed by a christening.
- No Women on Board: In ancient times, it was believed that women onboard would anger the sea gods, leading to treacherous conditions. This superstition likely arose as a way to keep women out of the predominantly male profession. However, over time, women proved themselves as capable sailors, debunking this myth.
- Friday Departures: Setting sail on a Friday was considered bad luck. This superstition might relate to Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion, or simply because Friday was seen as an unlucky day in some cultures.
- Pouring Wine: When launching a new ship, it’s a longstanding tradition to break a bottle of wine or champagne against the ship’s bow to ensure safe travels. The act is believed to appease Neptune, the god of the sea.
- Albatross: The bird is considered a good omen and harming one is believed to bring bad luck. This superstition was immortalized in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor suffers after killing an albatross.
- Drowning Sailors’ Last Breath: Some sailors believed that when they died at sea, their last breath created a bubble that rose to the surface. If seen, it was a sign that their soul had found peace.
- Ringing Bells: Bells were traditionally rung aboard ships to signify the passage of time. However, ringing a bell without reason was considered bad luck as it could signal a ship’s funeral or a watch change in bad weather.
- Horseshoes on Ships: Just like on land, horseshoes were often nailed to the ship’s mast to ward off witches and bad luck.
- Dolphins: Seeing dolphins swim alongside a ship is considered a good omen. They are seen as protectors and symbols of good luck, possibly due to their playful nature and assistance to sailors in ancient stories.
- Neptune’s Tribute: When sailors crossed the equator for the first time, it was a rite of passage to pay tribute to Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, often with a ceremony involving seasoned crew members initiating the newcomers.
- Ginger: In some cultures, ginger is believed to prevent seasickness, and it’s considered good luck to have ginger on board.
- Pierced Ears: It was believed that having pierced ears would improve a sailor’s eyesight, and sometimes gold earrings were worn as a form of insurance. If a sailor drowned and his body washed ashore, the gold from the earring would pay for a proper burial.
- Turning a Boat Clockwise: In some cultures, it’s considered unlucky to turn a boat or ship clockwise. All turns should be made counter-clockwise.
- Caul on Face: A baby born with a caul (a piece of amniotic membrane) on its face was believed to have a charmed life. Sailors often bought cauls, believing they provided protection against drowning.
- St. Elmo’s Fire: A blue static discharge, often seen during storms at the mast or other tall ship structures, was seen as a good omen, indicating protection from the patron saint of sailors.
- Onions: In some cultures, hanging onions on a ship was believed to repel evil spirits.
- Flat-Footed People: It was once believed that flat-footed people brought bad luck on board, so they were often avoided or not allowed on ships.
- Cats Onboard: Apart from being seen as good luck, cats were also valued for their ability to control the ship’s rodent population.
- Throwing Stones: Throwing stones into the sea, especially in the direction of a ship, was believed to cause storms, as it might anger the spirits of the sea.
- Sea Birds: Like the albatross, it’s bad luck to harm seafaring birds like gulls and petrels, as they’re believed to carry the souls of deceased sailors.
- No Flowers at Sea: Having flowers onboard, especially in cabins, was considered bad luck. It was thought that they would hasten deaths at sea, as flowers are often used at funerals.
- Never Say ‘Goodbye’: Instead of saying “goodbye,” sailors often prefer terms like “farewell” or “until we meet again.” Saying goodbye was believed to mean you would never see that person again.
- Hat Overboard: If a sailor’s hat gets blown overboard, it’s seen as an omen that he will soon follow. Some sailors believe they should not try to retrieve a hat blown off by the wind.
- Avoiding the Word ‘Drown’: Saying the word was considered bad luck and might tempt fate.
- Never Look Back: Once you’ve set sail, looking back towards shore or your departure point was believed to be a bad omen.
Many of these superstitions arose from the inherent danger and unpredictability of life at sea. Even today, with all our technological advances, you’ll still find sailors who respect these age-old traditions and beliefs, maintaining a deep connection to their maritime ancestors.
Have you got any favorite sailing superstitions? Let us know in the comments below…