Sailing superstitions

As far as we can look back in history, sailing and maritime superstitions on boats and ships have always been prevalent. Why? Because being a mariner was, and still is, an extremely dangerous job. To mitigate against one’s own demise as well as those around you, it was a common belief that these superstitions guarded the mariners against evil spirits or conversely invited kind spirits to look over them.

Several publications are delving into this with some depth, but here we try to list some of the main sailing and maritime superstitions that are still around today…

Before I start, I have to say that I’m not a great believer in superstition. This is not to say I ignore anything to do with superstition. For example, I don’t walk under ladders but only because things may fall from it and injure me.

The dictionary defines superstition as:

A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.

This is my theory about superstition…

I think that as a human race, we developed quickly because we have an uncanny ability to learn from our experiences and then to pass these learnings on to the next generation. We look at something and identify what caused things to happen (cause and effect), then lock this information away in our brain and apply it where the need arises. So we learned that if you tell a giant mean-looking bouncer at a nightclub that you slept with his mother, your nose will start to bleed soon after. We do this three times and we have established a reasonably sound cause and effect. Now people start to correlate a bleeding nose with bouncers but we all know that correlation does not imply causation. But before we know it, bouncers are bad luck where in reality the clubber was just stupid.

Table of Contents

Renaming your boat

Most maritime-related superstitious beliefs stem from Abrahamic monotheistic religions such as Christianity. But renaming your boat calls on the favours of the Greek god of water and the sea; Poseidon. Naturally, the Roman remake of the myth was Neptune but in essence, these are for the purpose of renaming your boat one and the same.

First of all, what is the problem here? Well, it is believed that renaming your boat brings bad luck. As a consequence of renaming your boat, equipment will start failing, the crew will become ill and ultimately your boat will sink and all on board will die.

Renaming your boat
Sailing and maritime superstitions on boats and ships

The reason for all these calamities is clear. Poseidon controls the seas and all that is in or on it, including all vessels. The latter he does by maintaining a register of all ships. The problem arises when you rename your boat after which the register is incorrectly reflecting actuals. Poseidon’s way to fix this imbalance is to simply sink your boat because it is no longer registered on his ledger or at best under the wrong name. After the sinking, the ledger is again up-to-date just like Poseidon likes it. This is not purely an administrative action as there seems to be a fair amount of spite involved as well…

With that in mind, the question begs, "Is it possible to change the name of your boat without incurring the wrath of Poseidon?" The answer is "YES". Saying this, it is clear we need to appease Poseidon first…

But as with most things in life, there are always additional complications. Poseidon is not working alone here. He has some partners in crime namely the gods of the four winds:

  • Boreas the North-Wind,
  • Zephryos the West-Wind,
  • Notos the South-Wind and
  • Euros the East-Wind.

Poseidon uses these deities to do his bidding when he is set on sinking your boat so it is important to appease these four gods as well when you rename your boat.

Wind gods renaming your boat
Boreas the North-Wind

Okay, so here we are. We need to rename our boat because the previous owners had a very unsophisticated sense of humour, were just thoughtless or the old name lost something in the translation when we imported it. For example, the Brazilian couple that bought the yacht of their dreams named "Pinto" whilst visiting the Med. However, back in Brazil "Pinto" translates to a male’s little frontal appendix.

So how do we go about changing the name of our boat? Well, this needs to be done in stages, with great care and respect and with attention to detail as well as with copious amounts of good quality Champaign. Let us have a look at these steps below….

Removing all traces of the old name

All traces of the old name need to be removed from your boat. This is a tricky one because you will be surprised where the boat’s name shows up when you are actually looking for it. Obviously, life rings with the old name are an absolute no-no (you may as well replace them with Besser bricks). However, you need to get down to the little details here like ship bells, tags on life jackets, tenders, logbooks, keyrings, you name it… All evidence of the old name needs to be removed. Also, keep in mind that the new name is to stay well clear of the boat at this point in time. Do not prematurely bring items on board with the new name printed on them.

Next, we need to write the old name on a piece of metal. This can not be stainless or bronze but must be able to rust away over time. The writing must be "méthode d’encre soluble" which means using soluble ink that will dissolve within 1 hour.

The purging of the old name

During this part of the process, we can start the official purging ceremony where we speak directly to Poseidon. In preparation, you should invite good friends. They do not have to be mariners but it will help if they are. You will also need a good amount of quality Champaign although I have it from reliable sources that researched the procedure and tabulated the results that Prosecco is now just as appropriate.

When gathered on the foredeck of the vessel, the following must be spoken by the skipper and seconded by the guests.

"Oh almighty and prodigious sovereign of the seven seas, to whom we pay homage each time we enter into your infinite realm, I (insert your name here), the skipper of (insert your boat’s old name here) beseech you in your wisdom and kindness to purge forever from your archives the name (mention the old boat name for the very last time in the ceremony), for cessation of her name has come to pass in your dominion. I submit this offering bearing her name, to be degraded through your powers and time  be purged from your ledger for all times."

You should now offer the metal strip on which you wrote the old name with soluble ink and drop it in the water one meter in front of the bow. Then continue speaking these words:

"In gratifying acceptance of your generosity and indulgence, we offer this accolade to you Poseidon and your splendorous kingdom."

All guest and crew must raise their glasses and toast his name:

"To Poseidon"

Then after taking a generous sip all in attendance must offer some of their Champagne (or Prosecco) to Poseidon. This will end the old name purging ceremony. It is now important to focus on ushering in the new name…

The renaming ceremony

Now that the old name is purged from the ledger, we need to get the new name on there ASAP. It is like driving a car without insurance. All the hard work is done so this part should not take long.

Still on the forward deck and facing to the nearest open waters, the skipper simply speaks these words:

"Oh glorious and splendid ruler of the seven seas that gird us all, on which we sail and venture for toil and pleasure and to which we pay our respect, I beseech you in your kindness to enter unto your ledger and recollection this most earnest vessel hereafter and for all time known as (say the new name of your boat), safeguarding her with your vast powers and holy trident and guaranteeing her a safe and speedy passage during her voyages within your realm."

"In gratifying acceptance of your generosity and indulgence, we offer these accolades to you Poseidon and your splendorous kingdom."

The crew then says "To Poseidon" whilst raising their glasses after which they must take a generous sip. At the same time, the skipper only offers the remains of the champagne bottle into the waters. Done…

Appeasing the four Gods of Wind

After the new name is offered, it is wise to address the Gods of Wind. One can do this as follows:

All facing North

The skipper must say the following words after which he offers some of his Champagne to Boreas :

"Glorious Boreas, the noble ruler of the North Wind, license us to apply your almighty powers in the pursuit of our sailing endeavours."

Directly after the skipper’s offering, the Crew must raise their glass and say the following after which they must take a generous sip:

"To Boreas"

All facing West

The skipper must say the following words after which he offers some of his Champagne to Zephyrus:

"Magnificent Zephyrus, the noble ruler of the West Wind, license us to apply your almighty powers in the pursuit of our sailing endeavours."

Directly after the skipper’s offering, the Crew must raise their glass and say the following after which they must take a generous sip:

"To Zephyrus"

All facing East

The skipper must say the following words after which he offers some of his Champagne to Eurus:

"Great Eurus, the noble ruler of the East Wind, license us to apply your almighty powers in the pursuit of our sailing endeavours."

Directly after the skipper’s offering, the Crew must raise their glass and say the following after which they must take a generous sip:

"To Eurus"

All facing South

The skipper must say the following words after which he offers some of his Champagne to Notus:

"Celebrated Notus, the noble ruler of the South Wind, license us to apply your almighty powers in the pursuit of our sailing endeavours."

Directly after the skipper’s offering, the Crew must raise their glass and say the following after which they must take a generous sip:

"To Notus"

You get the drift… Done and dusted. It is now safe to leave the marina or anchorage and follow your dreams…

Red sunrise / sunset

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning. We have all seen this before. The inherent meaning is clear. Red sky at night is a good thing whereas red sky in the morning is bad.

Is this purely a superstition or is there more to it? The etymology of the saying goes back a long time. This does not necessarily mean that it is true but is supports perhaps some validity. 

Red sky in the morning - sailors warning

Lets have a look at some of the early usage of the phrase starting with the Bible:

“When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” —Matthew xvi: 2, 3

Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare also refers to the red morning sky as a "wreck to the seaman":

"…Once more the ruby-colour’d portal open’d,
Which to his speech did honey passage yield;
Like a red morn, that ever yet betoken’d
Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to herds…"

Science or superstition?

It turns out that "Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning" has some validity within the scientific community.

Let’s states some facts:

  • We know the sun rises in the East and sets in the West
  • The red colours you see in the sky are the direct result of sunlight bouncing off suspended dust bits and other impurities in the sky.
  • Dust particles are predominantly found in the lower part of the atmosphere driven down by high pressure.
  • Generally speaking, weather systems travel in a westerly direction.
Red sky at night

Knowing these facts we can surmise that if we can see a high-pressure (red) cloud front to the East (sunrise) it is likely to move towards us: "sailor take warning". Conversely, if we see a high-pressure (red) cloud front to the West (sunset) it is likely to move away from us: sailor’s delight".

Mackerel scales and mare’s tails make lofty ships carry low sails.

A variant to this "superstition" – or perhaps a better term "proverb" – is:

"Mackerel scales and mare’s tails make lofty ships carry low sails."

The "mare’s tails" clouds are feathery cirrus clouds. On the other hand, “mackerel scales” clouds are small unwieldy altocumulus clouds that in some cases look a bit like fish scales.

Both these types of clouds are often the vanguard of a warm-weather front. As we know, warm fronts can bring unpredictable gusty winds and squalls as well as lots of rain.

So again, these types of superstitions can perhaps be better classified as proverbs because they are based on some factual information that has proven to be true in many instances and is backed up by some good old fashion science…

Mare's tails take down sails
Mare's tails take down sails
Mackerel scales take down sails
Mackerel scales take down sails

Women on boats

It needs no mention that women are great sailors in today’s world. None more so than Tracy Edwards and her 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race crew who were arguably the vanguard of women sailors.

But this was not always the belief among mariners. Women were not allowed on naval vessels at all and only begrudgingly on commercial vessels. 

Why? Well, perhaps it says more about the sailors than the women but it was decided early on that women distract sailors and hence reduced productivity and perhaps cause accidents on board. At some point in time, this was translated to mean "bad luck" where today we would just call it bad Human Resource Management. Further back in time it was believed that women onboard ships would simply anger the gods and this anger would lead to ominous weather and angry seas. 

Women on boats - bad luck?
Tracy Edwards and her 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race crew

The Vikings had no issues at all with women on ships so the superstition is rather localised.

women on boats are bad luck
Superstitions surrounding figurehead are based on the need for a ship to have “eyes” so it could see and navigate to its destination. Bare breasted figurehead offered the additional benefit of shaming the wind gods and hence calming the seas…

To make sure that this superstition was created by men and not women themselves, we can look at the other side of the coin where naked women were considered good luck. I guess this is like saying that money in your wallet is good luck but we digress…

We can see evidence of this when we look at ship’s figureheads that often displayed an ornately carved sculpture of a female or mermaid with one or two breasts exposed. 

It was believed that naked women calm the seas and took the edge off bad weather…

There is also evidence that there was some acknowledgement that women were somehow good at navigating through the dark but as previously determined; half-naked.

Bananas are bad luck on boats

This is arguably the most prevalently used superstition that mariners and landlubbers know about. Bananas are bad luck on boats.

Like most superstitions, the etymology goes back for many years and often there are some compelling arguments to suggest that there are some true facts associated with the superstition. Let us have a look and see if we can convince ourselves or at least understand why the superstition came about. There are many theories and most seem plausible particularly when fiction is supplemented with some indisputable facts (just ask the author Dan Brown):

Ethylene gas

  • Fact: Bananas produce ethylene gas (C2H4), which acts as a plant hormone. Plants have genes called ETR1 and CTR1 that regulate lots of other genes involved with growth, ageing, and cell death.
  • Assumption: In the early days of merchants, bananas were a valuable cargo but carrying bananas caused other fruit-based cargo to ripen prematurely and go off. This would cut severely into the bottom line or even remove all food sources for sailors on long journeys. Ie, bad luck.
Why bananas are bad luck on boats

Crawling nasties

  • Fact: Tarantulas comprise a group of large and often hairy spiders of the family Theraphosidae and when bitten by one causes severe pain.
  • Assumption: Tarantulas can and will hide in bunches of bananas. As a sailor, having to deal with a spider the size of your hand is bad enough. Ships have confined spaces and lots of nooks and crannies so these monsters could stay on board indefinitely, multiply and "kill" all of the crew.  A similar theory can be argued for snakes and other tropical nasties sailors were not use to. Ie, bad luck…

Can’t fish – can’t eat

  • Fact: Mariners often trawl for fresh fish with lures during long journeys so they could supplement their meagre rations.
  • Assumption: As Bananas ripen quickly, often merchants would use the fastest ships they had to carry bananas. The speed of the ship would be too fast for trawling so sailors found themselves without fresh fish. Ie, bad luck…

I have experienced prejudice against bananas myself when I went on a small fishing boat I shared with the skipper and a lady in her eighties. The fishing was going "not to plan" and we needed to pick up anchor and move several times to potentially "greener pastures". Every time we moved, the skipper would take out his phone and show us pictures of all the fish they caught "yesterday". Mmmm… Lunchtime came and we sat down so we could eat our packed lunches. The old lady opened her lunchbox only to reveal she had a banana in there. After the skipper noticed the fruit he became noticeably, and inappropriately angry at the poor old duck to the point where I had to intervene and calm him down. He then went to the back of the small pontoon-like boat and performed a little ritual that as of today still perplexes me. We didn’t catch anything that day but the effect does not prove causation – or does it? So bad luck and bananas may not be real to most but it is definitely very real to some…

Whistling into the wind

It is not hard to believe that the wind played a big part in the lives of sailors prior to steam engines. No wind made it impossible to manoeuvre the ship in and out of harbours or to get the ship to its destination. Too much wind was even worse as this may lead to the demise of the ship.

So from day one, the wind was a source of superstition among mariners from all over the globe. From the Japanese Fūjin, the wind god and Susanoo, the god of storms to the Viking’s  Njord, god of the wind. Almost all cultures have one or more deities that control the wind…

Other cultures may have been influenced by Greek mythology and based their wind gods on Boreas the North-Wind, Zephryos the West-Wind, Notos the South-Wind, and Euros the East-Wind.

Whistling on a boat is bad luck

In any case, sailors being a superstitious bunch have always endeavoured to please the wind gods irrespective of entity name or origin perhaps simply under the belief of "better safe than sorry".

So, whistling into the wind… Why is whistling into the wind on a boat bad luck? There is no clear evidence of where this originated from but based on the above we can assume that blowing or whistling into the wind may upset the respective wind gods. A sign of disrespect perhaps…

There is of course the expression “whistling for a wind” which is all about encouraging the wind to come to the ship. As long as it was not done against the wind, the belief was (is) that this will bring favourable winds and help the sailors reach their destination in good time.

Whistling causing bad luck is not confined to mariners exclusively. In the UK there was the belief that seven birds flying overhead and "whistling" also caused bad luck. Sailors shared this superstition with others in dangerous occupations and miners in particular. Hearing the seven birds meant that dead sailors were warning the living of imminent and ominous danger.

Other cultures equally associate whistling with bad luck such as the Russian saying "whistling away money" which is loosely based on the idea that whistling brings bad (financial) luck. Whereas in Turkey, whistling summons the devil.

So there is no doubt that whistling is perceived to be bad luck on boats. Don’t do it. If not for your sake, do it for the skipper…

Whistling against the wind

Tattoos

There are many reasons why tattoos were (and still are) popular with sailors. In most cases, a tattoo will signify an accomplishment such as a blue swallow signifying that the sailor achieved 5,000nm. Also, the dragon signifying that the sailor travelled to China, or a turtle signifying that the sailor crossed the equator. In short, these were simply badges of honour…

Other reasons why tattoos were popular were based on who you were and what your job was. For example, crossed anchors tattooed in the web of the hand signified that you were employed as a Boatswain whereas a harpoon signified you were a whaler…

However, here we will list some of the tattoos that are more based on superstition and myth. Although some of the etymology and history of these superstitions are rather vague, one can still see the reasoning as to why sailors may have adopted them.

Pigs and Roosters

It is important to note that most sailor’s in the age of sail could not swim. So it stands to reason that superstition played a big part in the life of sailors and they, therefore, did anything possible to bring good luck on their side. The rooster and pig bring good luck based on 2 explanations that both carry similar weight.

  1. Neither pigs nor roosters are great swimmers so when a ship sunk and/or disintegrated on rock, it was believed that both pigs and roosters would take the shortest and safest route towards the shore. As a sailor, you then somehow need to follow them to safety…
  2. The second potential reason may be that pigs and roosters often survived a shipwreck and were washed asore. This is because they were transported in wooden crates that simply floated. Clinging to such a crate could safe your life…
Pig and Rooster Tattoo Sailor's Superstition
Pig and Rooster tattoos
Note that the rooster must be on the right foot
Tattoos such as these have developed from very simple to elaborate and modern in the last few years
Nautical North Star Tattoo Sailor's superstition
The North Star - Sailor's Superstition

The North Star

Since the beginning of time, sailors have navigated the seas and oceans guided by celestial bodies like the sun, the moon, and the stars. One of the stars that helped sailors find their way at night was the North Star perhaps better known as Polaris or simply the Pole Star.

So what is special about Polaris? Well, this celestial body is in line with the rotational axis of the Earth and can be seen in the northern hemisphere above the North Pole. Because it lies on the same axis as the Earth, it can be seen in the night sky as practically stationary where all other celestial bodies appear to move around it.

This makes it very handy for navigational purposes because it was always easy to see where north was and hence deduct the direction of the ship on the compass rose…

Twin Propellers

So here there is a fine line between some dark humour and superstition. However, sailors of more reasoned times found it funny or perhaps necessary to have a large tattoo of a screw tattooed on each buttock; ie, the twin propellers.

The reasoning behind this is simple. When you find yourself inadvertently in the water you can proceed by using a relaxed backstroke to propel yourself towards the shore; assumably assisted by the twin propellers on your but. Humour or superstition? It is out there so I mentioned it but you make up your own mind about it… (the lack of an image is intentional)

Swallows

We already spoke about the swallow as a badge of honour (5,000nm) but there is more to the swallow than just that.

The etymology behind the swallow is, like most of these superstitions, somewhat in the air. However, there are some good arguments that could perhaps explain why the swallow was a very popular "good luck" tattoo.

  1. Swallows are migratory birds and travel long distances to find their home each year. Reflecting on that, we can see why the swallow was attractive in this sense.
  2. There was also a belief that swallows could carry your soul to heaven after you die. In this sense, the swallow tattoo will always get you home. That is, either to the wife and kids or heaven.
Swallow Sailor's Tattoo superstition
Badge of honour as well as good luck...
Often blue in colour usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck.
Crosses on the soles of your feet protects you from sharks

Crosses on the soles of your feet

None of us likes shark that circles us whilst building up the courage to have lunch. Sailors hated shark as they predicted bad luck when following the ship but more so because they didn’t want to be eaten.

The solution was simply to tattoo a cross on the sole of each foot. This would discourage sharks to have a nibble at your expense…

All things to do with funerals

Sailors were accustomed to losing one or two of their fellow sailors on any one journey due to the dangerous nature of the job, lack of medical provisions and doctors, tropical diseases or simply bad luck. It stands to reason that under these conditions sailors would try almost anything to balance the odds in their favour. So anything to do with funerals was frowned upon as it was seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy to invite disaster and death onto a ship.

Flowers on a boat - bad luck

In the mind of most sailors, flowers are for funerals and had no place on a ship. Any flowers discovered were quickly disposed of in order not to invoke one of the sailor’s death.

Priests are bad luck on a boat
Priests are bad luck on a boat

Priests and clergymen on boats - bad luck

A male priest, minister, or religious leader, especially a Christian one was not welcome on board ships. The general idea was that men of the cloth presided over funerals and therefore brought bad luck and death.

Animals

Animals and superstition dovetail (no pun intended) well for dozens of reasons. From evil spirits taking on the shape of animals to witches, animal superstition is not unique to the world of sailing. 

Here are a few animals that either bring good or bad luck so do not mix them up…

Look after the black cat for good luck

Paradoxically, cats on land are often seen as bad luck. It was commonly believed that witches use to be able to take the form of a cat. Not so in nautical terms. Cats are not necessarily good luck but neglecting a ship’s cat will bring bad luck.

The superstition developed in WWII where there are several examples of cats that defied the odds. For example, "Oscar the unsinkable" who, as the story goes, served on both German and British naval vessels and allegedly survived the sinking of three ships…

Cat on boats good luck
Oscar the Unsinkable

Albatross

Albatross good luck do not kill the albatross

Being followed by an albatross was generally seen as a sign of good fortune. Then in the 1834 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE the mariner’s bad luck began after he shot the albatross:

…"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS"…

So poem or no poem, killing a good luck charm can never be a good thing…

Sharks

There is no doubt that a shark can conjure up horrific images in anyone’s mind, let alone sailors that could barely swim. Stories of man-eaters that grew in size in direct proportion to the alcohol consumed by the orator of the story and earned an extra foot in length for each year that passed were common enough.

But for most sailors of the age of sail, sharks following the ship only mend one thing: imminent death…

Sharks following a ship is bad luck

Rabbit

As we all know, rabbits are often witches in disguise or when you are unlucky enough it may even be the Devil himself.

Paradoxically, a rabbit foot is considered good luck on land but any part of a rabbit at sea brings unspeakable bad luck. What about felt hats?

Dolphins

Dolphins swimming along the side of a ship (or bow-riding) is a sign of good luck. As fellow mammals, there are hundreds of stories about sailors being rescued by dolphins either by being guided to land or fending off shark attacks.

Dolphins near a boat is good luck
Manta Rays near ships is bad luck

Manta Rays

It was believed that manta rays were in the employ of Davie Jones and were trained to crab ship anchors and drag the ship down to his locker…

Ravens

The raven or crow are messengers of bad luck. This stems from Greek mythology where ravens are associated with the God of prophecy Apollo. Conversely, the Vikings used crows to navigate and find land from which the idiom "as the crow flies" originates…

Swallows near a ship is good luck

Swallows

Swallows are land-based so if you spotted a swallow after perhaps being lost at sea for some time it meant that land was not too far away and there was still hope that you survived your ordeal.

Furthermore, within Greek mythology, swallows were connected with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love so sailors spotting a swallow may be anticipating both land and love as well… 

Seagulls

Seagulls were seen as the vessels in which the sole of dead sailors wandered the seven seas. It was also believed that the squawk or squeal of a gull was the desperate cry of the dead sailor to move on out of purgatory and on to heaven.

A common theme with animals and superstition is that the animal doesn’t necessarily brings good luck but killing it will bring doom…

Seagulls are good luck
Cormorant good luck sailor superstition
Cormorant drying it's feathers

Cormorants

The duality of cormorants in terms of superstition is probably enough reason to raise at least one eyebrow. In the Scandinavian countries, this large black bird is seen in a positive sense because the belief there is that the birds carry the spirits of loved ones.

However, in general, these birds are seen as competition to fishermen based on the fact that they are extremely capable of collectively catching large amounts of fish.

People

Sailor’s superstitions are not necessarily politically correct. There are lots of examples where a particular demographic is singled out for some old fashion discrimination. Lets have a look at some of these…

Redhead on boats are bad luck

Is this because redheads may have a fiery personality or because they were just a bit different and therefore the target of blame.

In any case, gingers were not welcome on ships and should be avoided. However, where there was no choice, it paid to approach the red-headed sailor and speak to him before they spoke to you. A mitigation strategy that makes sense???

Redheads and gingers are bad luck on boats
People with flat feet are bad luck on boats

People with flat feet are bad luck on boats

Similar to redheads, flat-footed people were to be avoided and were not welcome on ships. This went as far as avoiding flat-footers 1 week before the ship set sail. If you know how this came about then please leave a comment below…

No women on ships

As discussed in more detail above, women were considered bad luck. Tell that to Poland’s Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz who in 1978 became the first woman to sail solo around the world.

Children born on ships is good luck

A child born on-board a ship was good luck

How can it be otherwise; children born on ships were seen as good luck and a sign of better days ahead.

Children were often delivered in between the guns which offered some privacy. However, if there was no sailor stepping forward as the father, the Captain would enter the child in his log as "a son of a gun". A cool thing to have on your birth certificate!

A Jonah

Jonah or Jonas is the main character in the Book of Jonah. You may recall the story about him being swallowed by a fish or whale… Before this, Jonah the prophet was on a mission from God to forewarn the citizens of Nineveh of the destruction of their city. However, Jonah gets distracted and boards a ship that finds itself soon after in terrible seas and atrocious storms. He is convinced that God is punishing him and to save the crew of the ship he demands to be thrown overboard after which the whale comes in, he is spat out after three days, he saves the citizens and so on… So now, "a Jonah" can be anyone that causes bad luck. So no need for overt discrimination against specific demographics in our society as we have seen above. It is open season on anyone you consider can bring misfortune… This could include jet skiers!

Jonah is bad luck on ships sailor superstition

If you have any other sailing superstitions you can think off then please leave them in the comments below…

Days and dates

Days of the week, special days or any other date related to maritime superstition is not uncommon. Here are a few…

Do not depart on Friday

Friday is seen as a "bad luck day" more likely than not because Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday. Friday the 13th was seen as extremely unlucky but there is no real correlation between the day and the date other than perhaps the arrests of the Knights Templar which started on Friday 13 October 1307.

Sailing on Friday is bad luck
Thursday bad luck for sailors

Sailing on a Thursday

The Germanic god Thor is the basis for the naming of the day of the week "Thursday". Being the Norse God of thunder, his impressive hammer was something sailors took note of. Sailing on "Thor’s Day" was seen as pushing your luck a bit particularly if thunder clouds we on the horizon…

The first Monday in April

I think we can see a trend here and a close connection to the Bible. The first Monday in April is seen as bad luck simply because Cain killed his brother Able. Obviously, this day is hard to avoid whilst on a long voyage but it pays to be extra careful…

First Monday in April bad luck for sailors

Second Monday in August

The second Monday in August is the day when  Sodom and Gomorrah came to their demise. It is clear that superstition is heavily influenced by Christianity… In any case, take note of potential disasters on that day…

Miscellaneous Sailing Superstitions

Here we are at the tail end of sailor’s superstitions with some odds and ends and some more dubious superstitions for which there are little or no references. If you can add your explanation then feel free to leave a comment below…

Ship's bell bells are bad luck

The colour green is bad luck on boats

It is well known that green is associated with the land. We look at the land and see green trees and undulating green pastures. It is therefore only "logical" that sailors believed that green belonged onshore and therefore had no place on a ship. This includes green hulls and decks but also green ropes and in fact anything that was green.

Why? Well, there are many theories that delve into the origin of this superstition. It is most likely a combination of these reasons that many sailors still believe that green has no place on a ship.

  • It was generally believed that because green was a land colour, a green ship would naturally want to return to land. So it was feared that ships would run aground for this reason.
  • Green was also associated with the colour of dead sailors and therefore avoided where possible.
  • Another reason may well be that green was believed to attract mould more than other colours. So having green on board would invite mould and therefore either sickness or more cleaning work or both.
Green is bad luck on boats

A coin under the mast

This superstition is thousands of years old and can be found as far back as Roman times. Today, it is still common practice to put a coin (now often a silver dollar) under the mast. 

Why? Well, it finds its origin in Greek mythology where Charon the ferryman needed to be paid to get your soul across the River Styx on which shores one could find the final resting place of menkind. In order to pay Charon, a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased which he could use as payment.

This myth was further taken up by Roman sailors with a similar required outcome. If the ship sunk, sailors would still have access to coin to use in the afterlife.

Today, it generally just symbolises good luck…

A coin under the mast brings good luck
Saying good luck brings bad luck
Don't say good luck...

Saying "good luck" brings bad luck

Saying good luck to a sailor when he sets of towards foreign shores is not generally done. There are several schools of thought about the origin of this superstition and the fact that it is a popular belief today suggests it could be a combination of the following…

  • It was believed that God determined your destiny and luck had no part in it. Therefore wishing someone "good luck" may be seen as almost sacrilegious and therefore bad luck. However, this theory seems to contradict itself…
  • Wishing someone good luck may also suggest that the person is not capable enough to make it without some external influence. Based on the competency of the crew and captain, their skill was the driver to success and not luck.

Bon Voyage & Buona Fortuna

Other sayings like "Bon Voyage" (“safe journey” in French) are generally adopted to wish seagoing folk a pleasurable journey and safe arrival to their port of destination. It has become the equivalent of “break a leg” used in theatrical circles…

Conversely, uttering the words, “buona fortuna” ("Good luck" in Italian) is a total no-no as it is regarded as an extremely harmful omen of bad luck.

The ship's bell

Many sailors believe that the ship’s bell is the most hallowed part of a ship. It represents the ship’s soul. There are many stories about the ship’s bell ringing after the ship sunk whilst resting on the sea bed. The bell is often the most prized possession of a recovered ship.

Bells are still used today in an official capacity under the Col Regs signalling a ship’s position in foggy conditions.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that ringing any other bells is considered bad luck…

Ship's bell bells are bad luck
One of the few "ropes" on a ship can be found attached to the bell's clapper.
Grooming of any type brings bad luck...

Grooming is bad luck

This one was definitely developed by male sailors over the years. Perhaps the phrase "Grotty Yachty" derives its origin from this superstition. In any case, any type of grooming was, and still is, considered bad luck. This includes:

  • Cutting your hair – bad luck
  • Shaving your beard – bad luck
  • Trimming your nails – bad luck

All of these activities will give you and your crew bad luck…

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If you are aware of any more superstitions related to sailing and the maritime industry then why not leave a comment below…

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