There are numerous myths and superstitions afloat within the boating world and with seafarers everywhere. Whether they travel on small crafts navigating their way through rivers or ships in deep open waters, many folks today still believe the value of these tales is just as important as they were in yesteryears.
Bananas are known to be bad luck on a boat. But why? From as far back as the 1700s, bananas were thought to carry deadly spiders, bugs, vermin and snakes — pests which wreaked havoc during transatlantic crossings. Many crewmen were bitten and suffered in pain. Some even died. It’s also been noted that because bananas produced deadly toxic fumes and emitted ethylene gas as they ripened, storage of them caused other foods to perish. So lives were lost because of lack of food. Still another school of thought as to why bananas shouldn’t be on a boat stems from a belief that the oil staying on fishermen’s fingers tainted baited lines and fish don’t like the taste of bananas, and therefore, fish were not caught.
There is an intriguing collection of myths regarding women on board. It seems they distracted the crew from performing their sea duties and this angered the sea gods. But with that said, naked women apparently could calm the sea, so that is why ships typically had a figure of a topless woman perched on the bow. If women were on board and passions ignited, the most convenient place to give birth was on the gun deck. The term “son of a gun” originated from this encounter and those pregnancies.
The wives of sailors had a responsibility to take heed to the warnings as well. A wife should never wash her husband’s clothes before a voyage. It was believed he could be “washed” overboard. She should never “wave” good-bye, because a “wave” may sweep him away. Once he’s out the front door, she shouldn’t call out to him because it’s bad luck.
Never turn a loaf of bread upside down. Do not leave a shoe upside down or open a tin can upside down. Never sleep on your stomach. All of these actions may cause the vessel to capsize.
What would you think if you spotted a shark following your boat? Well, according to one myth, this meant it was a sign of inevitable death. But double-check the fin. It could be a dolphin and with its presence one is considered to be under its protection, especially if it is swimming beside a ship.
It’s been known to be bad luck to change the name of a boat. But there’s a ritual one could follow to debunk this curse. So if you’re brave enough, the directions are as follows: Write the soon-to-be-exorcised name on a piece of paper. Fold the paper and place it in a small cardboard or wooden box. Burn the box. Next, scoop up the ashes and throw them into the sea on an outgoing tide only. If you live on a lake, do it at night and only during a new moon. River dwellers should send the ashes downriver.
Flowers are a great gift to receive. But flowers are often present during funerals, so they are not welcome on board. If flowers are found, they are immediately thrown overboard. Priests dress in black and perform funeral services and because this correlates with death, they, too, are not welcome. Any ringing of a bell is also associated with funerals, so sounds mimicking bells or ringing of a wine glass were thought to forecast death. The ship’s bells were exempt because they signified the changing of watch duties. But, if that bell should ring on its own because of the wind, well, somebody was going to die.
Cats were held in the highest regard. A polydactyl cat (one with many toes) was the most valuable type of cat to have on board because sailor’s believed they were better at catching mice and rodents. A cat could be considered either good luck or bad luck, depending on circumstances. They also believed cats could start storms with the magic stored in their tails, so sailors kept them content and well fed and protected. If they saw a cat lick its fur against the grain it meant a hailstorm was coming. If the cat sneezed, it meant rain. And if it was frisky, the wind would soon blow. If the ship’s cat approached a sailor and then walked away, bad luck would follow. But if the cat came to a sailor, it was considered good luck. If someone threw a cat overboard, a storm or death would follow.
Coins were thrown into the sea as a boat left port as a small toll to Neptune, the God of Sea, to ensure a safe voyage. But on an opposite note, to avoid a small catch one must empty one’s pockets of pennies before boarding a boat. By all means, always step on board with your right foot, because a left foot brings bad luck.
Some interesting myths are wrapped around weather. If a ring around the moon was spotted, it meant rain was on the way. The real reason this happens is because ice crystals are in the upper atmosphere, but not always a predicator of rain. There’s a saying, “Rain at seven means fine by eleven.” No clapping because it brought on thunder. Mariners also believed whistling or singing into the wind, while in the wheelhouse or anywhere else on board, will “whistle up a storm.” Never throw stones into the water, it will cause huge swells. Never tempt fate by bringing an umbrella on board, or you may be responsible for foul weather.
There’s a great passage, but one with complicated implications, “A red sky at night, sailors’ delight.” So, if we see a red sky at night it means the setting sun is sending its light through a high concentration of dust particles. This indicates high pressure and stable air coming from the west which meant good weather will follow. The flip side: “A red sky at morning, sailors’ warning.” This indicates a red sunrise reflects dust particles from a system that just passed from the west, and a storm system may be moving to the east. If the sky is a deep fiery red, it means high water content is in the atmosphere. So, rain is most likely on its way.
Sailors believed seabirds carried the souls of dead sailors, so killing a gull or an albatross would bring bad luck. Although, seeing one was considered good luck.
When setting out fishing nets, always set an odd number, because that extra one is for luck. Never count the number of fish caught. If you do, then you won’t catch any more, so wait until you are safely back in port. Finally, make sure to never wash away the herring scales from your boots or deck. Doing so will be to wash away your luck.
Who knew a person’s hair color could carry such strong convictions? Sailors used to avoid people with red hair when beginning their travels because redheads were considered to bring bad luck. And if a red-haired person was whistling, you were doomed. But if you spoke to them first, the bad luck would be averted.
It’s unlucky to start a voyage on a Friday. This is rooted in the belief that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Even more biblical, never start the voyage on the first Monday in April as this was when Cain slew Able.
Because a sailor’s success and survival were linked to elements out of his control, myths and superstitions thrived. Meanings were found in common events, so it was necessary for them to believe they had some kind of power in a universe that was vast. Who could blame them? Life on the water was hazardous, especially back then, and trying to find a link as to why so many people suffered misfortune became commonplace. A sailor who disregarded a sign or superstition was left to his own peril. We have to decide, even today, if we believe. There are just as many myths and superstitions here on dry land. Don’t walk under a ladder. Having a black cat cross your path is bad luck. Break a mirror and have seven years bad luck. I respect them all. Do you?