There are many fast and hard rules for superstitions in the seafaring world. Die-hard sailors of yore would often refuse to the leave the dock under the curse of bad omens.
In our age of science and technology, these lores of old could be dismissed as tales with no foundation.
But are you one to throw caution to the wind, or is there something to be said for the accumulated wisdom of superstitious sailors?
Here’s a selection of well-known lores to ponder.
1. Don’t whistle on your boat
It’s not a good idea to whistle while you work or play aboard your boat because this will challenge the wind at sea, causing strong gales and bringing treacherous conditions for the crew (literally ‘whistling up the wind’).
Some believe the superstition evolved from the British Royal Navy, where idle whistling was forbidden to avoid confusion with the boatswain’s essential calls to action on his whistle. Another theory connects it to Fletcher Christian’s signal for the mutiny on HMS Bounty.
You’ll find a similar superstition in theatres, where even today, you can be frowned at if tempted to pipe out a little tune on stage. Out of work sailors often handled the ropes on the fly floors of theatres in times past and used whistles to call their scenery cues. No point in whistling a happy tune if a lump of scenery is dropped on your head. This practical ban has translated into a fear of bad luck today.
2. Never say ‘rabbit’ on a boat.
The ban on saying ‘rabbit’ aboard may stem from some ancient beliefs that this cute or destructive small mammal (depending on your perspective) has connections with fear and the demonic. It’s unlikely to cause a problem if you choose to avoid reference to rabbits during your social chit chat with crew members. However, be warned – in some parts of the world, seafarers also won’t want to hear you say ‘pig’, ‘fox’, ‘cat’ or even ‘church’.
3. Stick with your boat’s name
It’s said to be bad luck to rename your boat. Legend has it that the name of every single vessel is recorded in the Ledger of the Deep and is known personally to Poseidon (Greek), or Neptune (Roman), god of the sea. Changing that name without their approval is said to bring bad luck.
Suppose you don’t share the same sense of humour as the previous owner and decide ‘Unsinkable II’ asks too many questions about what happened to ‘Unsinkable I’. In that case, you have to decide whether sanity beats tradition.
The higher authority you must consult these days if your boat is registered and you want to change the name is a government one. Don’t forget to notify your VHF, radar and EPIRB licensing authority.
As for the gods, be aware tradition suggests Poseidon or Neptune like a libation (a drink poured out to a deity) to temper their mood. So if you do change the name, try breaking out the rum and offer a few drops over the side in appeasement. Not that cheap stuff you keep for cooking though…
4. Red sky in the morning
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight: red sky in the morning, sailor’s take warning. This is the weather lore which most people know, be they a landlubber or a boater and for good reason because it is factually based. When the sky is red at sunset, it may well indicate high pressure and stable air are approaching from the west, with associated calmer weather. Conversely, a red sky at dawn indicates a high pressure system has passed and will be followed by less settled conditions.
The colouring is caused by the sunlight’s colour spectrum being split by atmospheric water and dust particles. The lore relies on the fact a lot of weather approaches from the west, and the predominant wind direction in the mid-latitudes is westerly. So it’s not fail-safe, but perhaps more discernibly linked to science than some of the other superstitions listed here.
5. Ban the banana
Bananas are not welcome aboard because they are omens of danger and misfortune. Theories abound as to why. Some say they were linked to ship losses in the 18th Century. Others take the practical line of them being the favoured home for spiders who can inflict a painful or poisonous bite or their discarded skins being a slip risk. Some feared that bananas confined in ships’ cabins fermented and released toxic gases. Fishers have identified banana oil as a fish repellant.
The case against the banana seems as strong as the smell if you lose one in the back of the locker during a hot summer. It makes you wonder how the seafarers tasked with delivering them today manage to survive.
Our top tip, stolen from the Caribbean, is to deal with any over ripe bananas by adding rum and sultanas and resting them under a generous blanket of hazelnut crumble. Lovely…
6. Step onto the boat with your right foot
They say you should always put your best foot forward, but in the case of boarding your boat, superstition suggests you should always choose the right foot to step aboard as that brings good fortune. If its opposite partner lands on the ship first it will trigger bad luck on your voyage. You may find additional advice suggesting the swapping of shoes before boarding but that is not so common.
We’ve been drawing blanks as to the origin of this superstition. Our own feeling is it’s best to choose the foot that is best placed to get you securely aboard, otherwise the bad luck might start before your voyage…
7. Let it go
Do you need an excuse not to cut your hair, shave or trim your nails while taking your boating break? No problem, boating superstitions have you covered. All of these acts of personal hygiene are considered to bring bad luck to your vessel, so best to go for the ‘wind-blown life in nature’ look. There’s nothing preventing washing, though, so don’t let the teenagers aboard stretch the tradition.
Given that a ban on all trimming and shaving probably means less hair down the sink and shower plug holes, then the chances are that will bring some good luck to your resident ship’s engineer too.
8. Install a ship’s cat
So many nautical superstitions warn you of the things you should avoid. However, a significant plus point for cat lovers is you should positively encourage your feline friend aboard.
Cats have served as a good omen on ships through the ages. The reason was not altruistic. Rats are a major problem at sea with their tendency to chew rope and eat vital food supplies. A good ratter would undoubtedly change the fortunes of anyone dealing with unwelcome long-tailed stowaways.
These days cats are most likely to be seen aboard as the stars of funny videos keeping your kids amused. For those who prefer the real thing on deck, you can even buy cat life jackets to help maintain their quota of nine lives.