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Sailing the Superstitious Seas

Sailing the Superstitious Seas
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People have been sailing the world’s oceans for hundreds of years and, although it can still be treacherous, 300 years ago it was a daring life to be a sailor.  Superstition ruled….

If you saw a redhead on the way to your ship you had to make sure that you spoke to them before they uttered a word to you otherwise doom awaited. Always make sure you board and disembark right foot first too. If you make a mistake, rewind, change your shoes to the other feet and try again! If you were being bid farewell shouts of, ‘Good Luck’ or ‘Goodbye’ were considered very unlucky. The former guaranteed bad luck and the latter meaning you were never to return. This seems quite unfair given it’s not something you’re in control of so there is an antidote to these fateful wishes. Drawing blood reverses the cast although that doesn’t seem so lucky for the blood donor now does it?

Women and a Redhead? No wonder the Minnow was lost.

Women and a Redhead? No wonder the Minnow was lost.


I think it’s quite widely known that women are unlucky to have on board but this was only due to the powers of distraction rather than being a harbinger of bad luck. Conversely the topless figurehead proudly mounted on the bow was said to calm the seas and watch ahead; a nautical case of double standards no doubt.


What you might not know, however, is that there is something far worse to bring on board than a lady; bananas! It is quite likely that the bad-luck-banana does have some actual truth behind it. Bananas create toxic fumes as they ripen and I guess it’s possible that a hold full of them could’ve caused seemingly spontaneous deaths as could biting spiders who had hitched a ride with the cargo. Bolstering the bananas bad boy reputation was the high incidence of ships lost carrying them; they do spoil quickly so it’s likely that the vessels carrying them took greater risks so that their cargo arrived in salable condition.

Keep those things AWAY from the boat!


You might think that once you were on board without women or bananas you might be in the clear, not so, your voyage could be marred by the day you chose to leave. Voyages should never begin on a Friday which was unlucky as this was the day on which Jesus was crucified. Thursday is Thor’s day and which sailor wants to anger the god of thunder and storms? Other biblical references decree the first Monday in April and the second Monday in August days on which you don’t drop your lines and head for the blue yonder. It’s quite surprising anyone every left harbour really!

Friday is a frightfully unlucky day to sail

Friday is a frightfully unlucky day to sail


Once you’d navigated around these potential misfortunes and were out at sea ill luck could still be summoned. Whistling was said to bring a storm although it was allowed if you were the ships cook as it meant you weren’t eating the food.  Killing a bird and particularly an albatross were certain indicators of bad luck on its way as was your vessel being stalked by a shark and losing a hat overboard meant your journey was going to be a long one.

Sweet, merciful Poseidon don't kill the Albatross!

Sweet, merciful Poseidon don't kill the Albatross!


Fisherman have their own set of superstitions; to bring good luck to a trip a crew member would be thrown overboard and hauled back on and it was said to be unlucky to start the fishing season without shedding some blood. I’m guessing a good drunken brawl would then be both lucky and unlucky? Fishing nets should always be cast in odd numbers too as the last one is always for luck.

How then to keep yourself safe? Tattoos. Popular amongst sailors were hens and pigs. These land animals cannot swim yet it was believed God would look down and see these animals and deposit them on land presumably with their human attached! The North Star was another popular design to enable the lost mariner to find their way home.

Not kidding. Pigs and Chickens. Look it up.

Not kidding. Pigs and Chickens. Look it up.


Changing the name of a boat is also wrapped up in superstation as it was believed once a vessel was named it had a spirit of its own. To change a name safely, first you need to eradicate all reference to the soon to be gone moniker. Remove emblems everywhere they appear on the boat and don’t forget those written on paperwork and in logbooks. Next scribe the ‘old’ name on paper and put it in a box and burn the whole thing until only ashes remain, then cast the ashes into the ocean or river or lake. You can now safely rename your boat.


This is just a sample of the many superstitions that guide sailors to safe passage and you might even have some of your own. Tell us in the comments section about rituals you follow before leaving land.


  • T Maynard: August 04, 2017

    Never throw a pair of shoes overboard or your feet will be aching to join them. Also pigs and chickens tattooed on the feet because they were kept in wooden crates on old sailing ships and usually floated if the ship went down.

  • Luke: April 21, 2017

    Apricots were a no no. Also when renaming a boat it was critical to piss in the bilge.

    My personal mojo kit always included a orange lighter, 17 cents in my right pocket to throw over left shoulder, fig newtons (which was a quasi violation… as figs were bad luck) …. and for tournaments red shorts and a Florida georgia tshirt that is just a rag now.., also right pocket (lower) also carried ‘monkey dust rutabaga dust’ to sprinkle on the rod tips when you needed a strike.

  • MJ Moye: April 03, 2017

    Bananas are a big no-no with deep-sea charter fisherman. Was off the coast of NC charter fishing in the Gulf Stream and catching absolutely nothing all morning. Meanwhile, on the VHF, we could hear that all the other boats around us were catching everything. Captain was so befuddled by our lack of success that he was even starting to talk about a refund of sorts. During break for lunch my buddy Dean holds up a clutch of bananas and says, “who wants a banana?” Captain slid down the ladder from the crow’s nest before anyone could respond, grabbed the bananas and heaved them overboard. Captain was going off on an expletive-laden rant about “didn’t we know that bananas were bad luck” when “Fish on!” was called, and there were fish on our lines for the rest of the day.

    Ever since, “No bananas” is an absolute rule on my boat.

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