We sailors can be a superstitious lot, and who can blame us? We head off into terra incognita every time we hoist our sails, in the sense that we can never be entirely sure what’s going to happen next. We have a much better idea, of course, than our forebears: meteorologists of the world, take a bow.
But for most of human history, going to sea was a leap into the unknown. Those who did so knew there was a solid chance they would not return, so who could blame them for a little bit of superstition?
The origins of many of these seafaring superstitions are lost in the mists of time, but others make a certain kind of sense. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why it was thought bad luck to have a woman on board in those days of all-male crew, each of whom would be packing a knife; but on the other hand, it was said a naked woman could calm a storm, which is why bare-breasted figureheads were so popular. Redheads too brought bad luck—perhaps this is why gingers get a bad rap even today—as were priests, who dressed in black and were symbols of death. Who knows, though, why flat-footed sailors were unlucky?
You wouldn’t set sail on a Friday—the day Jesus was crucified—nor say “rabbit” on board. The word “drowned” was to be avoided at any cost, and wishing a sailor “good luck” was certain to confer the opposite upon the poor fellow. Albatrosses carried the souls of dead sailors, so you shot one at your peril, and if you don’t believe me just read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whistling was forbidden, ostensibly because it summoned up the wind—it’s also damned annoying, which is a more credible explanation. A boat painted green would surely run aground, and if you poured some wine on the deck before setting off your voyage was sure to be successful.
No one wanted to sail with a Jonah on board, usually, some innocent unfortunate who became associated with an accident and was thence blamed for every misfortune that came the ship’s way. It was bad luck to have flowers on ship, for they could be used to make wreaths and were another sign of impending death.
Thankfully, not all superstitions involve bad luck. Cats—especially black ones—were thought to be good luck, to the extent that if a ship’s moggy fell overboard a terrible storm would ensue, or so it was believed. The Vikings thought cormorants were a good omen—obviously they hadn’t had them defecating on their decks. Tattoos were good news, especially ones with a religious motif, which would keep you safe.
I enjoy these superstitions and treat them the way they should be treated, as a fun aspect of the sailing culture, not to be taken seriously. And so long as you don’t bring any bananas onto my boat, we’ll get along just fine