By: Scott Way
Boating and sailing have rich traditions pulled from centuries of mariner tall tales, myths, and legends. There are umpteen sagas from famous seafarers who traversed the ocean deep that have been passed down through generations and seem to get wilder and more supernatural with each retelling.
The deep blue sea has always had an enchanting effect on sailors. Its mysteries provide an inescapable allure that makes the normal seem supernatural, and the supernatural seem legendary. Our fascination with the deep has never wavered; it’s firmly locked in popular culture with well-known tales about mermaids, prehistoric sharks, and the Loch Ness Monster. These myths grab the attention of conspiracy theorists but they’ve also created customs and traditions that boaters follow to keep the supernatural at bay. However silly and nonsensical some of these traditions may be, they've transcended time and are firmly entrenched as part of boating culture. Superstition in boating is as common as it is in pro sports: just like hockey goalies who never let their skates touch the blue line for fear of insulting the hockey gods, or baseball players who undergo a choreographed routine in the on-deck circle to ensure luck at the plate, boaters have become indoctrinated with a set of rules they must follow to ensure calm seas and good fortune. Here are 10 boating superstitions that you should follow to stay out of Davey Jones’ locker:
1) Low Potassium
The reasons behind the ‘No Banana’ superstition are pretty logical when you consider the context, but unfortunately they also mean you’ll be low on potassium on your next pleasure cruise. During the height of merchant sailing between Spain and the Caribbean in the 1700’s, many ships lost at sea were carrying bananas as cargo. While that wasn’t an issue on its own, transporting bananas came with several related problems that made them a scourge for sailors. First and foremost, they were prone to fermenting during travel which produced toxic fumes below deck. That pressured the captain to travel faster to avoid spoiling them, which in turn led to rash decisions in bad weather and cut down on desired fishing time. Bananas were also known to carry spiders trapped within their bunches, so sailors became leery of having them on board. Fearing a deadly bite bananas came to represent a bad omen. This superstition evolved with time and global commerce, but the banana is still considered bad luck. Modern interpretations include the total banishment of banana scented products like sunscreen and lip balm., so if you smell a banana on board keep an eye for spiders and make sure you don’t slip on the peel getting off the gangway.
2) No Women On Board
There are several sexist superstitions when it comes to boating, the most notable being that for centuries women weren't allowed aboard vessels. Denying half the population the opportunity to travel by sea was obviously unfair, and though the origins of the tradition come from a period during which men were typically the only ones allowed to work aboard merchant ships. The logic was that women would be distracting to men, so denying them access would make the men more efficient. This outdated notion has obviously proven false and women are now welcome members of the boating community, but despite the progress in gender equality there are several ironies to this silly superstition. Most blatantly, boats are typically given a female’s name, so vessels can be named after women even though for centuries they weren’t allowed aboard. The other is that a nude woman was once believed to calm the seas, thus explaining why old ships carried a naked female figurehead overhanging the bow. A nude woman’s bare breasts were believed to shame the stormy seas into calmness while her open eyes guided the boat to safety. The tradition of banning women has been dead in the water for decades, but the associated rule about female boat names remains standard. You’re also unlikely to see a nude female figurehead on a bow unless it’s a refurbished brigantine or a historical vessel, but these figurines still are still believed to protect traditional ships.
3) Calling A Boat 'She'
Even though women were banned aboard boats for ages, calling your boat a ‘she’ is a rule that has seemingly always existed. Why? Boats were generally named after a captain’s beloved woman, or after a female goddess from folklore, in the hopes that she would protect your boat from danger. So by calling your boat ‘she’ you were paying respect to the female character even if she wasn’t allowed aboard. One of the most popular quotes about this superstition hasn’t necessarily aged well, but it’ll give you an idea about the intention behind the tradition. According to Rear Admiral Francis D. Foles, U.S Navy Ret., “A ship is called a ship because there is already a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; in the days of sailing she had a waist and stays; it takes you a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not about the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out’ it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.” That quote could probably stand to be updated, but it shows how calling your boat a ‘she’ has a deeply rooted history in sailing culture
4) No Gingers!
Fair skinned folk with reddish hair often get a bad rap in mainstream popular culture, and that’s because historically their rarity made them the targets of the majority. Jokes about gingers not having a soul are still used on the playground today, but they were also heckled on the dock for centuries ago. Red heads were thought to bring back luck to a ship, especially if encountered before boarding. However, if you spoke to the redhead before they spoke to you, this miraculously halted the potential for a supernatural disaster. Redheads are often accused of having fiery personalities, so sailors avoided them in hopes of maintaining peace on board. Seems a little harsh for the fair skinned, but tradition is tradition. Thankfully there’s hair dye now, but don’t be surprised if your red hair lands you some suspicious looks when you’re getting onboard.
5) Get Off On The Right Foot
The old sayings “get off on the right foot” and “put your best foot forward” both trace their origins back to sailing culture. Utilizing your left foot (much like left handedness) has historically been viewed as a cursed feature, so being right handed (and right footed) has always been preferred. Stepping aboard a boat with your right foot is believed to start the trip off “on the right foot” and ensure safe passage. Tossing a pair of shoes overboard was also thought to prevent drowning and encourage good luck to follow you offshore. If you get a lefty who steps aboard with their left foot, you might want to confiscate their shoes and toss them overboard to undo the black magic.
6) Look The Part
1) Being a sailor has always included stigmas about appearance. From the Hollywood bedazzling of Captain Jack Sparrow’s outfit to iconic 50’s Navy vets with their white slacks and anchor tattoos, being a sailor (or a pirate) has always involved a uniform that carried specific connotations. Not surprisingly, these superstitions have made their way into the domain of personal hygiene and typically err on the side of the unshaven (at least for non commercial boats). Haircuts and shaving were long considered extremely unlucky because they pleased the Greek goddess Prosperina and made her counterpart Neptune jealous. Since Neptune is the god of the sea, testing his limits was not considered wise. It’s generally believed that once you’re aboard you should remain unshaven until returning to shore. Trimming your hair, beard, or nails are all considered bad omens. There are other rules about appearance that sailors have followed for years, as well. A pierced earlobe on a sailor signifies they’re traveled around the world and crossed the equator, thus the imagery of the circle. Sailors also wear gold hoop earrings as it’s believed they bring good fortune. Gold is also said to possess magic healing powers and serves as a protective talisman to prevent drowning. Angering the gods could be an invitation for an oncoming storm, so best keep the gold hoops handy.
7) Tattoo Traditions
Tattoos are a huge part of maritime superstition and their iconography comes with rigid rules. Sailors believe that certain symbols are representations of particular ideals, accomplishments, or events and that carrying these symbols will protect them when facing the associated risk. For example, during WWII roosters and roosters were shipped via military ships inside wooden crates. If the boat went down, these crates would often float and save the animals from drowning. As such, images of pigs and hens became symbols of good luck that sailors tattooed on their feet as protection from going under. Other examples include the nautical star symbolizing being able to find your way home, and a swallow being tattooed on your chest to signify every 5000 nautical miles traveled. If a sailor earned two swallows, one on each side of their chest, they had traveled over 10,000 nautical miles and earned their place among sailing lore. Boating superstitions don’t require you to get inked up for every weekend you spend waterskiing, but if you’re a passionate boater (or a sailor) who’s earned their sea legs, you may want to consider celebrating your accomplishments with some traditional tattoos. A rooster on your foot might protect you from dangerous seas.
8) No Whistling
A lot of superstitions don’t make a tonne of sense, and the ‘no whistling’ rule certainly qualifies. Whistling aboard a ship is said to be a challenge to the wind itself, effectively inviting a storm to challenge your boat and its crew. However, another reason for the rule may actually be rooted in some nautical history. It’s believed that the famous mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty in 1879 was started against Captain William Bligh by using a whistle to launch the assault. The tale of Captain Bligh’s mutiny is famous as it resulted in him being sent adrift in the Bounty’s launch and surviving a 3600 nautical mile trip to reach the island of Timor. The one exception to the whistling rule applies to the cook aboard a ship, since it’s believed that as long as he’s whistling he isn’t sneaking food.
9) The Liquid Sacrifice
Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, was believed to have enjoyed his spirits, so making a liquid sacrifice in his name has always considered good practice. The superstition is a key part of naming a boat; new owners pour wine during the ceremony to promote safe passage in perpetuity. Neptune himself kept a ‘Ledger of the Deep,’ a list of very vessel travelling the seven seas, and being a member of that list meant providing him with some libation. If your vessel wasn’t on the list, or you hadn’t made the necessary sacrifice, then your boat was destined for the deep. Thankfully he wasn’t a picky drinker so wine, beer, or liquor are all considered acceptable. Next time you’re headed on a cruise it might be wise to save some Budweiser for the gods.
10) 'X' Marks The Calendar, Not The Treasure
There are a few days on the calendar you can put a red ‘X’ through if you’re planning to travel by sea. Thursday is a derivative of the Old English ‘Thor’s Day,’ the Norse god of thunder and storms. To avoid enticing a storm it’s best to skip Thor’s Day as your departure day. Friday was the day of Jesus’ crucifixion so it’s also considered a day best spent on shore. If Saturday doesn’t work with your schedule, the old adage goes ‘Sunday sail, never fail. Friday sail, ill luck and gale.’ Another date to avoid is the first Monday in April as it’s the biblical date when Cain slew Abel. If you don’t know the Bible story, Cain was punished by God for killing his brother Abel, condemning him to a lifetime of wandering. The first Monday in April could also be April Fool’s Day, so there’s another reason to keep it on the mainland. The last date to avoid is the second Monday in August. It’s believed this is the date that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, so clearly biblical influence in the boating world is strong. Sailors believe that the only good day to set sail is on a Sunday, the holy day, so it’s best to circle that day in green on your calendar.
Even though most superstitions are rooted in faulty history and bad science, the reason they endure is because it’s easier to follow them than tempt fate. Whether you’re superstitious or a scientist, enjoying your time on the water is the ultimate goal and participating in the history of nautical mystery is a worthwhile experience. Sure, a lot of these superstitions don’t pass the litmus test, but making a sacrifice to Neptune by leaving the bananas on shore might just keep you out of Davy Jones’ locker, so why risk it for a little potassium?