When facing something as mighty and unpredictable as the sea, sailors and fishermen have long sought ways to tip the odds in their favor. Since ancient times, superstitions have surrounded boating. In honor of Friday the Thirteenth, we've compiled thirteen spooky boating superstitions and traditions. Do you observe any of these?
Best Foot Forward. Always board your boat with your right foot. The left foot brings bad luck. This right-left good-bad association is very old: the English word "sinister," a synonym for evil or unfortunate, comes from the Latin word "sinistra," meaning "left." Sorry, southpaws.
Red Alert. Of the many superstitions about red hair, one holds that if you meet a redhead on your way to your boat, your voyage will be unlucky unless you speak to the redhead before he or she greets you. On the other hand, the Norse, some of history's most successful mariners, thought red-haired people brought good luck (we agree).
[caption id="attachment_539" align="aligncenter" width="341"] Looks lucky to us! Art: Gil Elvgren.[/caption]
Our Fine Feathered Friends. Harming seabirds is not only mean, but it brings bad luck. Old-time sailors believed that the souls of deceased sailors inhabited birds, so to kill a seabird was to harm a fellow mariner and invite misfortune. Norwegian sailors believed that their deceased loved ones visited them on the water in the form of cormorants, sleek birds that dive for fish.
No Girls Allowed. In the days when ships were almost always crewed by men, a woman on board could prove a distraction. Yet in some contexts, women are lucky for boats: it's believed to be best if a woman christens a boat. Another superstition holds that an angry sea can be shamed into calm if a woman bares her breasts to it. That explains all those old ships with topless figureheads.
A Boat By Any Other Name. It is untrue that a boat can never be renamed, but it isn't as easy as slapping a new decal on the transom. Failing to obliterate every trace of the former name will curse the boat. The old name must be erased from name boards, logbooks, key chains, trailers, life preservers, etc. Some boaters advise writing the boat's old name on a metal tag or piece of paper and dropping it overboard. Until the boat has been unnamed, the new name must not even be spoken on the boat and no equipment bearing the new name can be brought aboard.
Once the old name is removed, you can go ahead with a christening ceremony. Red wine is the traditional libation, harking back to the days when ships were blessed with the blood of sacrifice. Nowadays, Champagne is a popular and festive choice. A woman should do the honors of smashing the bottle against the boat.
[caption id="attachment_541" align="aligncenter" width="665"] Photo: Charter World[/caption]
A bottle that doesn't break is unlucky, so some companies make wine bottles that are specially scored to break easily. If you don't want to risk bad luck with an unbroken bottle (and possible damage to your hull), it's all right to splash or pour the wine against the hull and let it run into the water so the sea gods get their share. Only then is it lucky to unveil the boat's new name. BoatSafe has an elaborate ceremony script here.
Bad Days. It's unlucky to set out on Thursday (named after Thor, the god of thunder) or Friday (the day of Christ's crucifixion). We're glad that there doesn't seem to be much basis in fact for the no-Friday-boating superstition!
No shaving. Shaving at sea, as well as trimming of hair, beard, or nails, is unlucky. Perhaps this one came about because the pitching of the boat made wielding a blade near one's face dangerous, or maybe the guys who came up with this one just didn't feel like tidying themselves up.
[caption id="attachment_536" align="aligncenter" width="244"] Radioman First Class Roy Miletta, 1945.[/caption]
No welching. Ducking out of a debt makes you both unpopular and unlucky. Keep your karmic slate clean and pay your bets and debts, lest misfortune overtake you at sea.
No whistling. To whistle into the wind is to challenge the wind. That's a contest no mere mortal can win, so to stave off stormy weather, don't whistle or sing into the wind.
[caption id="attachment_535" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Don't even try it. Art: Sandro Botticelli[/caption]
On the other hand, whistling can stir up a wind when a boat is becalmed. The luck you whistle up seems to depend on your situation.
Bad Words. No, not the sailor words you're probably thinking. Words that bring bad luck are scary words like "drown," "die," "goodbye," and "priest" (because priests officiate at funerals).
Odds Are Good. Old-time fishermen would deploy an odd number of nets or lines for good luck and a bountiful catch. Can any of our fishing friends tell us if this one works for them?
Tattoos and Earrings. Long before rebellious youths began to horrify their parents with permanent body decorations, sailors tattooed lucky symbols on their skin and pierced their ears. Some say that hoop earrings indicated that the sailor had sailed all the way around the globe. Others hold that sailors believed piercing their ears would sharpen their senses, enabling them to spy out land and potential hazards. Traditional tattoos include seafaring symbols like anchors, compasses, and stars. The symbolic language of sailor tattoos is rich and interesting.
Please Don't Pass the Salt. There are many traditions and superstitions about salt, and they aren't just for landlubbers. It's unlucky for one sailor to pass the salt directly to a shipmate. Setting the salt down near the diner who wants it so that he or she can pick it up seems to be all right.
Yes, We Have No Bananas. Like a lot of old traditions, this one's origins are confused. Some say that the banana ban comes from pests like the "deadly black tarantula" of Harry Belafonte's song and the critters' habit of stowing away in shipments of bananas.
[caption id="attachment_537" align="aligncenter" width="450"] NOPE. Photo: National Geographic[/caption]
Others suggest that after a shipwreck, a banana boat's fruity cargo would be found floating on the sea, leading people to draw the conclusion that the bananas had caused the disaster. Perhaps it's that after a while at sea, a cargo of bananas smells really bad. We don't know - but we do know that to this day, fishermen and boaters avoid anything to do with bananas, be it Banana Boat sunscreen, T-shirts from Banana Republic, banana muffins and bread, banana-flavored drinks, and even Fruit of the Loom underwear (the logo of which depicts no bananas).
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