I'm a boater! Email me yachts and information.

October 24th 2019. By Zuzana Prochazka.

Boating Superstitions

Boaters are a superstitious bunch. Here we round out some of the top boating superstitions for Halloween 2019.

Boaters are said to be superstitious, holding onto some strong beliefs that date back to when most ships were under sail. Seafarers throughout the centuries made observations, embellished the details, and drew conclusions about how to ensure a happy voyage or even their very own survival. This lore became their reality in the form of superstitions.

There are those who scoff at superstitions as irrational fears and they pooh pooh behaviors designed to ward off evil or minimize anything of ominous significance. But before you dismiss superstitions as fanciful ideas of poor, uneducated sailors, consider what you would and wouldn’t do if there was even a slim chance of ensuring a safe passage or just a great day on the water.

Myth or reality? Let’s see what ancient mariners whipped up to form their particular kind of religion.

Boating Superstitions

No Women Wanted

Here’s a way to cut your available crew in half – don’t allow women aboard. Women were considered distractions to sailors whose subsequent inattention to their duties would anger the seas. Perhaps this lack of female companionship is why ship’s figureheads were often statues of bare breasted women, which were justified by lonely sailors saying that they calmed angry seas. You have to wonder how these sailors dealt with Eleanor Creesy, the female navigator of the Flying Cloud clipper ship that set a record for the fastest voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1851. These same sailors would have had their timbers shivered if they knew that today, there’s a healthy population of female cruise ship captains.

Ban the Bananas

Removing a food group may be easier than banning an entire gender. Bananas are considered bad luck aboard. Depending on whom you ask, there are some possibly scientific as well as some downright batty reasons for this. Let’s start with the fairly plausible ones. Banana stalks are a favorite home of spiders like tarantulas, which would have been bad news on a ship sailing offshore. Also, bananas spoil quickly so profit-minded captains would have been in a hurry to deliver their cargo, perhaps putting their ships in harm’s way by sailing through storms or too close to reefs. Then there’s the poisoning effect. Bananas fermenting in a ship’s hot hull created toxic ethylene gas that could overwhelm sailors. Finally, for the less scientific reason – in Polynesia, bananas were considered to be the food of the gods so sailing away with a load would have angered them and that could spell doom for the ship.

Doomed Days

Sailors try to avoid starting a voyage on a Friday. Fridays are considered unlucky possibly because Christ was crucified on a Friday. Don’t even think about setting sail on Friday the 13th. Thursdays aren’t much better since it’s “Thor’s Day” and Thor was the god of thunder, which meant storms. This is a bummer for anyone heading out for a long weekend of boating.

Profiling is Bad

If you bend the rules for women, you had still better avoid redheads – of either gender. “Gingers’ were considered bad luck if a sailor encountered one before sailing, which is terribly exclusionary. However, if the sailor spoke to the redhead before they spoke to him, then it was okay. That’s really convoluted and besides, with all the hair dye out there these days, who really knows?

Red Skies

Speaking of red – there’s an adage that has to do with the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” This actually first appears in the Bible in the book of Mathew and has to do with shepherds. In both cases this proverb was used as a sort of weather forecast, which wasn’t entirely off the mark. Weather in the northern hemisphere moves west to east and the color red in the atmosphere signals a high concentration of moisture or dust particles. So a red sky when the sun sets in the west means there’s a high pressure and stable air or good weather on its way. A red sky in the east in the morning may signal that the high pressure has passed and inclement weather may be on its way. Try it sometime – you may realize that this isn’t really a myth, but rather a forecast almost as accurate as Doppler radar.

What’s in a Name?

It’s bad luck to change the name of a boat, especially without the appropriate ceremony. Boats are actually christened not just named and supposedly, they develop personalities, sometimes having to do with their names. Therefore, you can’t change the name willy-nilly without possibly angering the boat. If you’re dealing with a boat with an embarrassing name that just must go, perform the ceremony by writing the current name on paper, place the paper in a wooden box and then burn the box. (Not aboard, of course.) Scatter the ashes at sea. Then buy a decent bottle of bubbly and re-christen the boat with the new name by smashing the bottle on the bow. Toast Neptune, the god of the sea. Don’t just drink the champagne yourself because that’s surely going to make Neptune unhappy. Never speak the old name in the ship’s presence. When choosing the new name, avoid ones that start with the letter “A”.

Dolphins Good, Sharks Bad

Dolphins love to play in the bow wave of a moving vessel and they sometimes accompany a boat for hours. French circumnavigating sailor, Bernard Moitessier, sailed the first round-the-world single-handed yacht race. In the southern hemisphere off New Zealand, he encountered a pod of dolphins or porpoises that were agitated and kept swimming off to the right – always to the right. Moitessier checked his compass and realized that due to a wind shift, his self-steering mechanism had altered his course to the north right over a reef. He adjusted his course to the right and the dolphins calmed down, staying with the boat until he was well past danger. This may be an example of why sailors believe dolphins are good luck so they’re a welcome sight when they come to play. The same doesn’t apply to sharks however. To old time mariners, a following shark was a sign of impending death. That stands to reason since the shark is probably looking for a snack to fall off the ship but it does give sharks a bad, and really undeserved, reputation.

Honor the Cat

Speaking of companion animals, cats had a place of honor on a ship. There were a number of good (and some ridiculous) reasons for this. A ship’s cat caught and killed rodents that chewed through wood and ropes and could spread disease. Cats also did away with cockroaches that ate the cargo or food stores so felines were considered to be useful and were protected. If a cat went overboard, a ship could face a major storm or could be cursed for years. Sailors believed cats could forecast the weather. For example, a sneezing cat meant incoming rain and a restless cat was a sign of wind. This may not be as crazy as it sounds since cats have sensitive inner ears and can detect changes in weather better than humans. A cat licking its fur against the grain meant hail was likely, or maybe that the cat had just gotten into the ship’s grog.

Respect the Albatross

Since we’re on the subject of the protection of animals, the mighty albatross commanded some respect from sailors as well. Albatrosses stay at sea for years, coming back to land only to mate and care for their young and so it’s not unusual to see one when passagemaking offshore. It’s a good sign when an albatross follows a ship and sometimes, they stay for days, probably because a passing boat may be their only entertainment. Albatrosses (and other birds) were thought to carry the souls of dead sailors come to visit so killing an albatross was very bad luck. In Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a sailor kills an albatross (a bad omen) and is forced to carry the carcass of the bird around his neck as punishment. Hence the expression “an albatross around my neck” means a burden that must be borne.

Get the Look

The old Smothers Brothers song, “Streets of Loredo”, includes the lyrics, “ I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,” which speaks to the look of a certain profession. Well, pirates had a look too. Tattoos were considered lucky and probably served as a living history of the sailor’s voyages, which was particularly useful to those who were illiterate. A tattoo of the North Star or a compass rose was believed to help guide a sailor’s ship home. Tattoos of animals were said to protect against drowning, which was important to many sailors who couldn’t swim. Jewelry like gold hoops was also part of the appearance. Hoop earrings were worn by sailors who crossed the equator and the gold was said to have magic healing powers. If a sailor died penniless, the gold earring was used to pay for his funeral so it was a type of insurance too. Sailors were also a motley crew since cutting one’s hair, shaving and trimming nails was considered bad luck. Some of this may have had to do with having limited fresh water aboard so personal grooming was not high on the list. Besides, since there were no women aboard, who were they going to get gussied up for?

Words and Whistles

Whistling on a boat wasn’t allowed since you could “whistle up the wind” and bring up a storm. Of course, that could come in hand when stuck in the doldrums with no wind to fill the sails. Some words were also prohibited and despite sailors’ reputations for having foul mouths, they’re not the words you’d think. To say “good bye” or “good luck” was to take a chance on a ship never returning to port. Saying the word “drown” could mean you would. The only way to reverse a curse from an uttered word would be to draw blood so maybe that’s why sailors and pirates were always shown fighting.

Take Care When Boarding

There is a proper way to board a ship and much goes into doing it right. For good luck, always step aboard a vessel with your right foot first. Don’t bring flowers. Flowers were associated with funerals and graves so they weren’t allowed on ships. The same went for clergymen, who weren’t invited aboard. Always ask for permission to board, which may have sprung from the belief that if you didn’t invite evil spirits aboard, the ship would be protected.

Steady the Salt

Salt was an important part of sailor’s lives and it’s no wonder since it was used as a preservative for their rations and also as just about the only seasoning they knew. Tossing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder before starting a meal was to throw it into the face of the devil who lurked there. So, blinding the devil with salt was a means of protection. Also spilt salt was a sign of bad luck so one sailor could never pass the salt directly to another. He would have to put it down on the table before another could pick it up, avoiding a mishap during the pass. You’ll see people today doing this even on land.

Better Safe than Sorry

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that we’re at 13 myths and maybe that’s the magic number at which to stop. With new knowledge of what may be behind the myth, you may now appreciate why boaters hold fast to their superstitions even today. Old mariners were faced with danger and uncertainties and creating this lore was their way of dealing with the unpredictable and coping with their reality. You may want to heed some of these when out boating. Why tempt fate, right?



Zuzana Prochazka
Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.