When the first sailors went out on the ocean waves they were powerfully aware of three facts. One: That they were travelling across a vast, unfathomable body of water that was unpredictable, powerful and occasionally extremely violent. Two: That they were there on a bit of wood. Three: That their speed and even direction depended largely upon which way and how strongly the wind was blowing.
They were in an incredibly dangerous situation with virtually no control over their lives. In the face of such unyielding terror, it’s natural that people will try to simulate at least a small amount of control over their lives through the imposition of little rituals and rules. This is how superstitions are born, and it’s not surprising that sailors traditionally have a lot of them.
So, if you’re heading out onto the waves and want to try out some completely useless but somehow comforting methods of making yourself feel like you have some agency in a vast and indifferent universe, beware of these dreaded omens of bad luck.
Sailors sometimes refer to a “Jonah”, a reference to the Bible story where the sea became violent until the sailors tossed the eponymous prophet over board to be eaten by a whale. At various times through history all sorts of things could be enough to make a Jonah, a passenger that brings bad luck to a boat. Everything from being a woman to having red hair could make you a bad omen. This means that apparently it’s bad luck to have Karen Gillan on your boat, which I find extremely hard to believe.
The day you set off from port can be full of portent (geddit?). When planning a trip you better check your calendar, because all the Fridays need to be crossed out, because it’s bad luck to head out then. The 2nd day of February, known as Candlemas, is also considered a bad day to leave port. Nobody seems quite sure an obscure holiday marking a story about Jesus as a child has to do with sailing, but it’s one that’s stuck.
The first Monday in April is considered to be a bad day to set sail as it’s the day that Cain killed Abel, although again, nobody seems to know what this has to do with sailing, or for that matter why the anniversary of the world’s first murder has such a such a specific yet moveable date.
Perhaps the oddest superstition is that, even to this day, fishermen will refuse to carry bananas on their boat. Whether this because of fears of slipping on banana peels and going overboard, or worries about spiders crawling in among the bananas, we have no way of knowing. Either way, best stick with oranges, sailors like oranges.
Of all the superstitions surrounded boats, this is perhaps the most understandable. People put a lock of stock in the names of things, with there being plenty of superstitions about writing someone’s name down, or telling certain people your name. So changing a boat’s name is so obviously bad luck we shouldn’t really even have to mention it..
Fortunately, this is also a superstition that it is possible to sidestep. Simply write the boat’s existing name onto a piece of paper, then place the paper in a small wooden box. Then set fire to it. Once the box has burned down to ashes, scoop them up and throw them into the sea as the tide is going out. If your boat is on a lake you should dispose of the ashes on the night of a full moon, or alternatively send the ashes downstream if your boat is on a river. Once you’ve done that you should be able to put an ad in the paper saying “Boats for sale that you can name whatever you like without invoking a curse”.
- License: Creative Commons image source
Sam Wright is a freelance writer who was born on Friday the 13th under a ladder where a cat was trying to hang a horseshoe upside down. He tends to be very clumsy around mirrors.