The Superstitions That Made Sailors Salty

‘Tis the season for spooky stories about ghosts and witches (with a nautical theme of course) and we don’t want history to repeat itself. Here are the stories that will help you avoid those superstitious faux pas.

It has never been an easy job being a seaman, beyond the dangers of the job, there are countless superstitions that effect safety and luck on the open ocean. Some may seem strange in today’s world and may no longer apply. So, we will tell you the stories and let you decide for yourself before your next trip out to sea.

  1. No Women Onboard 

Historically, women were not allowed to remain onboard after a ship had set sail. The superstitions says that women on merchant and military vessels were destined to bring bad luck to the voyage. According to discoverboating.com, women were a distracting temptation to mariners and were also believed to make the seas angry which would ultimately cause sailors to have a dangerous voyage. This superstition is ironic considering vessels were traditional named after women because in ancient history, ships were dedicated to goddesses. In addition, figureheads of sculpted women were often placed at the bow of a boat because the female form was believed to calm storms at sea. Human females angered the seas, but female figureheads calmed them; interesting.   

  1. Always Step onto a Boat with Your Right Foot 

Sailors always boarded a vessel with their right foot first because stepping with you left meant you were bringing bad luck to your journey ahead. Also, flat-footed people were seen as unlucky on board a ship and were also avoided by sailors before they boarded. Although these are two separate superstitions, sailors had a thing about feet.

  1. No Bananas Onboard 

How a banana could be a threat to a sailor is just absurd. There are a few explanations, but one is for sure. Bananas are a favored hiding spot for snakes and spiders and their nasty biting habits. Centuries ago, ships transported bananas from tropical islands and these unwanted spider guests would often hitch a ride in the cargo. Unbeknownst to sailors until they found them the hard way. Like the other myths, bananas were also believed to be, you guessed it, unlucky. Sailors thought they would cause the ship to get lost. Fishing vessels believed that having bananas on board meant they wouldn’t catch any fish. This myth was created because the vessels that transported bananas had to travel quickly so the bananas wouldn’t spoil and because the boat was moving so fast, the fishermen attempting to fish by trolling rarely caught anything. Lastly, if a ship sunk, only the bananas were found floating, making sad and salty seamen blame the fruit for sinking the ship.

  1. No Whistling, No Singing  

Legend has it, that whistling or singing into the wind was forbidden because it would change the patterns of the wind and would stir up a storm. They called it “whistling up a storm,” and they weren’t the only actions forbidden due to weather. Clapping onboard was believed to bring thunder and if you threw a stone into the ocean, that would cause storms with large ocean swells. With all their superstitions onboard, sailors wouldn’t bring umbrellas onboard because those are used for bad weather and there was no way they were tempting the seas with precautionary bad weather equipment.

  1. Don’t Rename Your Boat 

Under no circumstances are you to change the name of your boat. Ships are named and christened and changing that name would give you bad luck because Poseidon keeps record of every vessel’s name. If you renamed your boat, you were attempting to trick the God of the Sea and you would face his wrath. However, there is an exception to this rule. If you wish to rename your boat, you must have a de-naming ceremony before christening the boat again. This ceremony would typically require writing the original name of the boat on a piece of paper that is then folded and placed into a box. That box would then be burned to ashes and thrown into the sea while the tide was going out. If the ceremony was preformed away from the shore, the ashes can be thrown in a river to float downstream or in a lake at night during a full moon. The de-naming ceremony also meant that all traces of the old name were to be removed from the boat including the logbook, paperwork, and the writing on the hull. After the de-naming ceremony, the boat was then okay to be renamed and re-christened.

  1. Don’t Depart on a Friday 

Some believed that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the origin of this superstition because this event occurred on a Friday. Others believe it originated with adherence to not working on the Sabbath, a day of religious observance and abstinence from work, kept by Jewish people from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Other unlucky days for sailing include:

  • The first Monday in April, which is the day that Cain killed his brother Abel
  • The second Monday in August, which is the day that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed
  • December 31, which is the day that Judas Iscariot committed suicide

Sailors often avoided setting sail on all these days, and the most superstitious sailors only set sail on Sundays, which were considered a lucky day for sailing.

  1. Cats are Good Omens  

Despite what we hear around this time of the year, having a cat onboard was a positive and was often done on purpose. Cats were loved for their love of hunting rats. Rats often invaded old trading ships as they were attracted to the food cargo. The rats also carried diseases and were found gnawing away at the wood, ropes, and later the electrical wiring onboard. Because cats were such a good token onboard, if the ship’s cat were to approach a sailor and linger, that was good luck for the sailor. If the cat approached but then turned away, that was bad luck. Because of this superstition, sailors kept the ship’s cat happily fed and content. Wives of fishermen were known to keep black cats at home to keep their husbands safe while they were at sea. While cats were primarily seen as good luck, sailors always expected bad outcomes and therefore, cats have a bad omen as well. Some mariners believed cats had magical powers stored in their tails and could control weather. But just as cats were believed to protect ships from bad weather, it was believed they could cause bad weather if they fell or were thrown overboard. If the cat went overboard and the ship did not sink during a storm, the ship had bad luck for nine years. Other nautical superstitions regarding cats include:

  • A ship’s cat sneezing meant it was going to rain
  • A ship cat acting frisky meant a windy day was coming
  • If the ship’s cat licked its fur in the opposing direction meant a hailstorm was in the works.

While these sailors’ superstitions may sound foolish, they are somewhat based on reality. Because of their sensitive inner ears, cats can detect changes in weather more acutely than other animals. For example, cats can sense the low atmospheric pressure that often comes before sea storms, which may cause them to act restless or nervous.

  1. No Redheads Onboard 

It used to be thought that people who had red hair were unlucky. A person with red hair was not welcome onboard and were avoided entirely by sailors. If a sailor was to happen upon a red-haired person before boarding the ship, the sailor needed to speak to the red-haired person before they spoke to him. This action would dismiss the bad luck that comes from encountering a redhead before setting sail.

  1. Tattoos are Good 

Because early sailors believed strongly in the power of symbols and prophecies, they frequently tattooed specific images on their bodies to bring good luck or to repel misfortune. For example, seafarers often had a tattoo of a nautical star or compass rose that they believed would help guide them home.

Sailors also tattooed pictures of roosters or pigs on their feet to protect them from drowning. Many sailors could not swim and believed that the gods would have clemency on them during a shipwreck if they saw the animals on their feet. The gods would see the roosters or pigs and collect the sailors from the water to place them safely back on land.

This superstition may have developed because lighter livestock like roosters and hens would often survive after a shipwreck because their crates would float in the ocean. The pigs were held in containers that would float after a wreck, and that was believed to keep them alive.

  1. Choose Your Words Wisely 

Although sailors are notorious for using foul language, there are some words that seafarers avoided because they were believed to bring bad luck. Saying “drown” while on a boat was supposed to summon the event itself. “Good luck” and “goodbye” was also forbidden, and it was unlucky for sailors’ wives to wave goodbye or call after their husbands once they left the house for a sea journey. Words related to land brought bad luck if mentioned at sea, such as the words pig, fox, rabbit, and church. Even swearing while fishing was seen as bad luck.

Other superstitions include:  

  • If a sailor’s hat went overboard that meant the trip would take a long time
  • If a sailor groomed themselves by trimming nails, cutting their hair, or shaving their beard, they would induce bad luck
  • Tea was not supposed to be stirred with a knife or fork; this would invite bad luck
  • Salt was not to be passed directly; this is bad luck. Crewmen were to put the salt down on the table before the next picked it up
  • To encourage fish to be caught, Scottish fishermen would begin their fishing session by throwing one of the crew members overboard and then hauling him back on
  • Variations of the saying, “Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight; Red Sky in Morning, Sailors Take Warning,” also refer to meteorological predictions dating back to biblical times. For example, when the sky is red at sunset, high pressure and stable air are approaching from the west. By contrast, at dawn, red skies indicate coming rain and possibly stormy seas.

One thought on “The Superstitions That Made Sailors Salty

  • March 1, 2023 at 4:48 am
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