Boaters have always been a superstitious lot, and considering how big a role luck played in the life (or death) of sailors for centuries, it’s no wonder why. Now, with Halloween finally upon us, those of us who may be in for some spooky sailing need to be aware of—or perhaps beware of—these age old parables.
- Bananas are bad luck. This superstition is so widespread that even today if you walk the docks of some marinas, you’ll see “no bananas” signs and stickers on multiple boats. Why would bananas be bad luck? Theories abound, but the most widely accepted explanation is that since tarantulas sometimes hide in bunches of bananas, they turned up on boats that were hauling this fruit. And if a sailor got a tarantula bite during a long voyage at sea…
- Whistle, and you might “whistle up a storm.” This superstition is another that’s well known, so much so that it’s worked its way into modern vernacular. But whistling in and of itself wasn’t thought to be unlucky. In fact, sailors might whistle intentionally to try to stir a breeze when their boat was becalmed. Still, the danger of turning a breeze into blustery winds meant sailors had to be judicious when they pursed their lips.
- Women are bad luck aboard. Though few would argue that this superstition has any place in the modern world—after all, every US Navy ship on the sea has female crewmembers, and the US Navy has a pretty darn good record—it was too widely held a belief for us to ignore. One reason why sailors of centuries past might have feared having women on a ship is obvious: jealousy and distraction among the crew. But one of the more interesting theories was that the ship, which was always referred to as “she” and was thought of as the sailor’s mother, protecting them from the ravages of the sea, might be made jealous if other women were aboard. Strange footnote: even though having a woman aboard was considered bad luck, bare-breasted women were thought to calm the seas. Many people believe that’s why the figureheads carved into the bows of sailing ships were usually topless—and rather well-endowed.
- No gingers allowed. It was thought to be bad luck to have a red-head aboard, or for that matter, even to cross paths with one prior to embarking on a voyage. You could, however, remain lucky if you spoke to the redhead before they spoke to you.
- Don’t change the name. Sailors used to believe that once a boat had been christened, it would be bad luck to change the name. There were, however, de-naming ceremonies a sailor could perform to change the name with no ill effects. These ceremonies varied from place to place, but often were quite complex and required significant time and effort.
- Never kill an albatross. Sailors believed they sheltered the souls of dead sailors, and killing one would bring bad luck (remember the Rime of the Ancient Mariner?)
- Always step aboard a boat with your right foot. Setting your left foot down on the deck first was considered a bad omen for the journey.
- The day of departure matters. Sailors have long believed it was bad luck to set sail for a journey on a Friday. Or a Thursday. Or on the first Monday in April. Or the second Monday in August. In fact, there are so many “bad” days to set sail we wonder how they ever got those ships off the wharfs in the first place.
Do some or all of these superstitions seem a bit silly in this day and age? Sure they do. But we suggest you toss some salt over your left shoulder to keep the devil at bay, knock on wood for good luck, and toss a shot over the transom so Neptune stays happy. Why take any chances, when you know the Flying Dutchman is sure to be sailing on All Hallows’ Eve?