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13 Nautical Superstitions

Mar 13th 09
By Rubi McGrory

Humankind has been sailing the sea for as long as we have been around, so it is no surprise that there are as many nautical superstitions as barnacles on the hull of the Black Pearl. In a pre-GPS, pre-weatherfax, pre-Satcom seafaring existence, sailors created their own code of behavior, governed by superstition.

Here are 13 nautical superstitions, many of which persist to this day:

1. It's unlucky to start a cruise on a Friday. This is one of the more universal nautical superstitions, believed to be rooted in Christ being crucified on a Friday. Also, you should never start a voyage on the first Monday in April, more Biblical mythology, as this was the day that Cain slew Able.

2. Bananas on board are bad luck. At face value, this taboo doesn’t make much sense, but it has been said the reason for this is that crew could slip on a banana peel left on deck and fall. But why would you throw a banana peel on deck when you could throw it overboard? The more likely explanation involves lack of pesticides. Prior to being able to spray stalks of bananas with commercial-grade pesticides, sailors would bring entire ecosystems of insects, bugs and spiders on board with their fruit that would bite and infect the crew.

3. Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms. But banana peels thrown into the sea are good luck?

4. Coins thrown into the sea as a boat leaves port is a small toll to Neptune, the sea god, for a safe voyage, but a stone thrown from a vessel putting out to sea ensures she will never return.

5. Church bells heard at sea mean someone on the ship will die. The Hanson brothers heard at sea means someone needs to update their iTunes account.

6. Flowers are unlucky on board, as they could later be used to make a wreath for the dead. Today, not having flowers on board is considered unlucky, it means the boss’ wife will think you aren’t doing your job.

7. Women on board make the sea angry; although a naked woman on board will calm an angry sea. This accounts for naked figureheads (and deckies’ collections of Maxim and FHM magazines).

8. Redheads bring bad luck to a ship, but you can get around this by speaking to the carrot-top before he or she speaks to you.

9. Cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck. If you buy this one, we’d hate to see you and your crew at the end of the season.

10. Never step onto or off a boat with your left foot first. Either foot can be unlucky if the captain catches you boarding with your shoes on.

11. Tattoos and piercing are said to ward off evil spirits, hence sailors’ love for ink.

12. Saying the word “pig” on board is bad luck. Not having enough bacon for the crew is even worse luck.

13. Pouring or spilling wine on deck will bring good luck on a long voyage. May we suggest a nice crisp Sauvignon Blanc; don’t waste the Champagne.


Any more superstitions you can add to the list?


Tags: Essentials Myths 

Rating  Average 1.5 out of 5

  • Yea, I learned about 'bits from the British and French sailors I worked with when I was on the Med...
    Posted by volochef 18/03/2009 23:03:44

  • Never really read much about rabbits and bad luck. Could be true that if the tasty buggers escape they chew things up.
    You should see what a rat can do in a few days. Had one come into the wheelhouse for a weekend and completly tear up the nav seat cushion in two days.

    Rabbits and Coconuts were the typical fresh food supply on a sailing ship. Many times they would deliberately be put ashore on islands as a source of food for passing or shipwrecked mariners. Australia is full of the little buggers. Cocos Island in the Pacific was famous as a man made offshore coconut plantation for early sailors.
    Posted by junior_1 17/03/2009 19:37:56

  • There's a certain four-legged animal with big ears that should never be brought on board, mentioned, and certainly not eaten. Legend has it when they were put below deck, they'd escape their cages, chewed on the hemp which broke the lines, collapsed the rig, threw the boat out of control... all of which spelling potential doom and therefore became a symbol of bad luck.
    Posted by volochef 17/03/2009 19:12:33

  • bad luck to change the shio's name while still in the water - something to do with new launch with new name, means new life. Probably this was put about by shipyards!

    Don't whistle on deck, it will call up the Wind Devil - "Whistle and I'll come for you my lad"!

    When setting forth on a new voyage, pour a little of the wine you are drinking, not onto the deck, but into the sea; this is a tribute to Poseidonus, Greek god of the sea. The bad luck side of this is when the captain catches you drinking on duty!
    Posted by peter boulton 15/03/2009 17:27:08

  • Yes, teach the chefs that wax the Kiwis package their apples a fruits best friend.
    Posted by monback 15/03/2009 13:52:33

  • The gas given off by the bananas is also said to speed the rate at which other fruit and vegetables rot therefore spoiling the chef's carefully planned menus during a longer off shore cruise.
    With Paddy's day fast approaching, why is it said to be unlucky to wear green on board?
    Posted by a.y. achtie 14/03/2009 18:05:05

  • I know of no reference to the word pig being bad luck. Pigs were always carried on the decks of sailing ships to provide meat before refrigeration became common. It was always understood on a ship that for safety reasons the last pig would never be slaughtered until the final destination was reached or severe starvation set in. It is possible that captains forbade the crew from calling out...time to eat the last pig.
    Posted by junior_1 14/03/2009 16:21:10

  • I love that for every sailing myth/superstition, there seem to be many variations on how they came to be. For example, the buttons on a sailors sleeve were purported to keep homesick crying sailors from wiping their noses on their sleeves. The flap of fabric in the back of a sailor's jersey was to keep the tar from their braids off of their shirts (the braids were dipped in tar to keep their hair from flying around in the breeze).
    Posted by Rubi 14/03/2009 15:53:50

  • Sailors lived a dangerous life of extreme poverty . They pierced their ears and inserted gold earrings so that when they died they could pay for a christian burial rather than be thrown in the common grave heap. Conditions on ships were so bad that a sailor sleeping on his donkeys breakfast could loose the equivalent of his entire blood supply during a round the world voyage because of lice infestation.
    Posted by junior_1 14/03/2009 10:23:51

  • Oh I love this game! Okay, I read that the christening a ship with wine was a civilized derrivation of the more ancient tradition of sacraficing a virgin to appease the gods. It was also my understanding that this is why the bust of a maiden is carved on the bow of some ships, and why what was originally called a bow spirit, later became the bowsprit.

    I also read that the reason pirates pierced their ears was because they thought it would keep them from getting seasick.
    Posted by TiffanyS 13/03/2009 23:29:55

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