With the month of October underway, what better a way to celebrate the spookish season than with a look into the superstitions of the marine world? Perhaps not for all modern boats, but for many, the traditions, superstitions, and stories live on!
From the Scottish tradition of throwing a fisherman into the water and hastily retrieving them to ensure a bountiful catch to the widely known superstition that a woman, if fully clothed on a boat, brings bad luck- most of these superstitions are wildly outdated and extremely politically incorrect. To take a closer look into how these superstitions came to life, we took a deep dive into the history of superstitions in the marine industry.
For many hundreds of years, sailors have been known to be amongst the most superstitious of people. There are many superstitions, myths and legends, however, here are a few of our favourites.
No bananas on board the vessel
The superstition of bananas on board a vessel dates back to the 1700’s, it was around this time that perhaps coincidently, many vessels that were carrying this cargo did not return and were lost at sea. With so many ill-fated ships carrying bananas, it is no surprise that the average superstitious sailor became wary of this fruit and therefore it was dubbed a bad omen. Along with this, bananas were known to sometimes harbor critters from the place of the banana’s origin. Often, a bunch of bananas would hide snakes, spiders or other insects that have been noted to have bitten and sometimes killed members of the crew- this again, only further encouraged the belief that bananas were dangerous and a bad omen once onboard a vessel. There is another theory, much like the lighthearted joke of ‘slipping on a banana peel’, it was accepted as a fact that the peels could cause potential accidents and therefore bananas were to be avoided on boats. An additional theory pertained mainly to fisherman and depicted that the skin of a banana- when on one’s hands- was too sweet and considered unfavourably sticky which was believed to therefore discourage fish from being caught!
More likely than the theories noted above, the superstition of bananas on the boat is probably more accepted when looked at from a cargo movement perspective. Keeping in mind that this superstition came to fruition in the 1700’s, when seafarers did not have the technological advances that we enjoy today, bananas were quick to spoil on route and therefore often didn’t allow fisherman the time needed to complete their catch before the bananas would need to be offloaded. Due to how fast they would ripen, often vessels traveled at high speeds to ensure steadfast delivery of the cargo. Along with this, bananas are known to naturally give off ethylene gas which in turn would cause other fruits and potential cargo goods onboard the vessel to ripen faster or spoil.
Put your best foot forward
With its origins traced to the sail era, the commonly known sayings, “get off on the right foot” or “put your best foot forward” were used in days past as a requirement for sailors as they boarded the vessel. In our history and evident in many cultures, it was considered to be bad luck if a person was left handed and therefore upon boarding a vessel, it was believed in turn, bad luck if the person stepped aboard with their left foot. The expectation upon boarding the vessel was for the crew to start the trip off “on the right foot”, therefore ensuring safe passage and a successful voyage. The second superstition to accompany this, was the expectation that throwing a pair of shoes overboard would prevent drowning and would inspire good luck to follow.
Whilst we don’t see evidence to support this superstition, it is still common for sailors to board with their right foot opposed to stepping forward with their left.
Captain Bligh’s mutiny and the ‘no whistling’ rule
Did you know, it is believed that the only crew member aboard a vessel that is allowed to whistle is the cook? This superstition, like many, has multiple origins. A crew member who is whistling is said to be challenging the wind itself and will consequently bring about bad weather, invite stormy seas and coax misfortune to befall the vessel. In contrast to this theory, the cook is encouraged to whistle as in the days of sail, it was believed that if the cook was whistling, they were not able to steal food from the rest of the crew.
This superstition may have also originated from the famous mutiny of Captain Bligh. In 1879, aboard the HMS Bounty, the crew were believed to have mutinied after the signal, a whistle, was used to launch the attack on Captain William Bligh. The attack was successful and Captain Bligh was set adrift where after 3600 nautical miles, he reached the island of Timor, in the southern end of Southeast Asia.
Women on the boat
Considerably one of the most well-known superstitions- even today- is the myth that a fully clothed woman on a boat brings bad luck. Although this belief is extremely archaic and today accepted as politically incorrect, many female mariners have still heard the ignorant mumbling of this superstition.
It was thought in prior years that a fully clothed female onboard a vessel, whether a worker or a passenger, would distract the crew or create jealousy between men on the boat- a distracted, jealous crew was a dangerous crew to have and needed to be avoided at all costs. There were also beliefs that a fully clothed woman would anger the intemperate seas which would then turn their wrath on the boat and whomever was on board. It is important to note that in the beginning years of nautical navigation, there was much fear- specifically in Europe- that suggested women who wished to work at sea were in fact, witches. With a deep belief in curses, omens, good luck and bad luck, the historical sailor often would abide by superstitions in order to escape the potential doom that could be otherwise fated. And so began the superstition that a woman was not allowed on the boat, despite them generally being notoriously good navigators at sea.
In contrast to this superstition, a female who presented without any clothes was thought to shame the seas into submission, forcing nature to suppress its anger. Naked women on the boat were considered good luck for this reason. Commonly, sailing vessels usually sported a female with bare breasts as their figurehead on the bow. Along with this, her eyes would need to be facing forward as it was thought that she would help guide sailors home.