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17 October 2011
Right – you’re on your way to your mooring, on the 2nd Monday in August, to spend a relaxing weekend on the water, away from the trials and tribulations of modern life. On your way down the pontoon you pass a red headed man with flat feet and on looking closer you notice that he is throwing stones into the water. You step carefully onto your boat with your left foot, only to notice a stranger on board, who turns out to be a priest, eating a banana. What do you do? Go straight back home and have a quiet weekend in the garden instead!
Since the first man built a simple boat and set out over the water, a vast series of myths and superstitions have developed. Even though modern techniques and vessels have changed out of all recognition since those early days, there are still those, who work and play at sea, who even now pay homage to superstitions whose origins have probably disappeared into the mists of time.
Here are a few of the superstitions I have unearthed. While there are those that appear to have some sort of historical reasoning behind them, there are others that seem to be totally illogical.
A woman on board is bad luck – Women were always regarded, in the past, as the weaker sex, not able to stand up to the hard physical work and emotional strain required to work at sea. Most fishermen would tell you that a woman on board made the seas angry and was a bad luck omen for everyone on board. Maybe this was due to the distraction they provided, taking the sailors’ attention away from their duties. Conversely, a naked woman was supposed to calm the sea, providing an interesting hypothesis as to why a figure of a naked woman is often seen on the bow of a vessel, as a figurehead.
Other examples, of people who might bring bad luck to a voyage, are those with red hair or flat feet, but if you spoke to them before they addressed you, you may be alright. Priests on board were also supposed to be a bad luck omen as were people with cross-eyes.
Black cats were always thought to be lucky and would bring a sailor home from sea. However, you had to treat them well, as they carried lightning in their tails and if you angered them they might sneeze and call up the wind. Similarly seeing swallows at sea or dolphins swimming with the boat were thought to be a good omen. However, a curlew brought bad luck and killing an albatross or gull, or having a shark following the boat, would bring definite disaster.
An even stranger idea was that the feather of a wren, slain on New Year’s Day, would protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck.
There are many superstitions about bad days to set out on a voyage. These seem to be mainly based on supposed happenings in the bible on those particular days, (Cain killing Abel, Sodomand Gomorrahbeing destroyed, Judas Iscariot hanging himself). The 1st Monday of April, the 2nd Monday in August, December 31st and any Friday are not good days to leave port, while Sunday is supposed to be the best day, (possibly because of Christ’s resurrection), and lead to the saying “Sunday sail, never fail”.
Even though the humble banana is thought to be the world’s most popular fruit, it is an omen of disaster to voyagers. In the 1700s, when Spain’s South Atlantic and Caribbean trading empire was at its height, it was noticed that almost every ship which disappeared or failed to make its destination, was carrying a cargo of bananas. Another theory for this superstition is that the fastest sailing ships were used to carry bananas from the tropics to US ports along the East Coast, so that they would reach their destination before they spoilt. They were so fast that it was impossible to fish from them, which did not please the fishermen. A third explanation is that on slave ships carrying bananas, they sometimes fermented and gave off methane gas which would be trapped below deck. The slaves, imprisoned below deck, would be poisoned by the gas, as would anyone climbing down to help them. This could also be the cause of vessels abandoned by the crew, who feared that the gas would cause an explosion. Finally there is the hypothesis that the fruits became unpopular because of the lethal species of spider that frequently hid in bunches of bananas. A sailor dying of a spider bite, after bananas were brought aboard, might result in the whole cargo being thrown overboard. So take your pick – there are always bananas on the boats I have sailed on and I am still here to tell the tale.
Flowers are also supposed to be unlucky on board a ship, possibly because they could later be used for a funeral wreath, implying that someone would die on the voyage. Many skippers would not tolerate a green plant in the wheelhouse. The roots of plants obviously seek the earth, an action to be avoided by a seaworthy ship.
There are many deeds which sailors would avoid in case they resulted in danger or worse. They would never look back over their shoulder once they had left port, nor would they mention the word “drowned”, say “good luck”, or even have it said to them while at sea. The only way to have this reversed was to draw blood, usually by dealing a swift punch on the nose. Not a very friendly action to answer a seemingly kind remark. They avoided black travelling bags, probably because black is the colour of death and also symbolised the vast depths of the sea. This is presumably why priests on board were a bad omen, as they wore black and performed funeral services. If the rim of a glass started to ring, it would be stopped immediately or there would be a shipwreck and sailors would try to avoid cutting their hair or nails at sea. As for whistling while at sea, I have been reprimanded many times for this innocent pastime. It is supposed to “whistle up a storm”, but I have never been aware of any increase in wind power.
To counter the bad omens, there were a range of actions which were believed to bring good fortune. Tattooing a rooster and a pig on each foot could save a sailor from drowning and starting the voyage with a clean set of teeth, ensured that the wind would be on your side. A silver coin placed under the masthead would ensure a safe and successful voyage, as would the spilling of wine on board, as this was supposed to appease the gods. Presumably this explains the origin of breaking a bottle on the side of a new boat as she is launched. Other good luck actions were to throw an old pair of shoes overboard just after a launch, for a baby to be born on board, for sailors to wear gold hoop earrings, for them to touch the collar of another sailor and to step on board using the right foot first.
The wife of a Yorkshire trawler man was as bound by superstition as her husband. She was not allowed to wash clothes as her husband set sail, in case he was washed overboard, neither could she wave goodbye, in case a wave swept him away. You get the message? She would not dare to call out to him after he had set foot outside the door, or follow him down to the fish dock to see him off.
It was always thought to be bad luck to change the name of a boat, but if it was really necessary a complicated procedure had to be undertaken. The old name must be written down on a piece of paper and placed in a wooden or cardboard box, set fire to and the ashes scooped up and thrown into an outgoing tide. While boats are traditionally named as females, it was considered unlucky to name a vessel after one’s fiancé in case the boat was jealous. Lastly the name of a boat should never end with an “a”.
Most of us would take these stories with a pinch of salt (now where does that come from?) and I hope no one is discouraged from sailing off into the sunset by this light-hearted look at sailing superstitions….. but, just to be on the safe side, do avoid red-headed men, and priests and bananas and……
Author – Dee White
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