Fishermen and sailors beliefs and rituals to avoid troubles in the sea and bring fortune on their side

My grandfather was a marine officer for many years. He loved that experience and was telling us his stories over and over again. It was like a movie or a book that you have seen or read but for some reasons you keep watching and reading it again.

Sailboat and the moon
Sailboat and the moon

I miss my grandfather so much. I considered him a very close friend and a person that was intelligent, strong and inspiring. He, for some good years, replaced my father in my mind. And I’m sure many of you experience that as well. Parents tend to be more controlling and authoritarian with their children and grandparents are softer and more indulgent 🙂

In one of those evenings when we set up the fire, my grandmother was cooking dinner and we were busy eating some dry fruits or other delicious foods that “won’t kill our appetite”, my grandfather was telling us about some superstitions that most of the sailors or fishermen will know and pass from one generation to another.

One of the “rules” was no women on board. It was thought that a woman will bring bad luck and the ship might sink. Another reason, a more pragmatic and realistic, for the ban on women is that they would arouse passions and jealousy among the crew members. In today’s U.S. Navy, women serve on every type of ship except submarines.

R3 at sea. The R class was the first hunter-killer design, capable of destroying enemy submarines.
R3 at sea. The R class was the first hunter-killer design, capable of destroying enemy submarines.

From ancient times people love to create, if they don’t inherit, stories about mystical creatures. One of which is the world known mermaid -the little mermaid, the fairytale written by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Sailors and fishermen alike, will tell you that these sea creatures, sing and their songs supposedly lure sailors into treacherous waters where their ships would be dashed against the rocks. It is funny if you think that a figure of a topless women was perched on the bow of the ship, with her bare breasts, will “shame the stormy seas into calm” and her open eyes will guide the seamen to safety. Some older ships (older than 19th century, will have the figure of the owner of the ship, a war hero, or an imposing animal like a lion, especially for warships.

Another interesting fact about ships, is that are always referred to as “she.” The reason is that they are the sailor’s home and refuge, sheltering and protecting him from an angry ocean. Just like mom and mother earth.

Friday is considered a bad day to start a journey on sea. According to one of the legends, the Royal Navy once tried to put an end to this superstition. They commissioned a ship named the HMS Friday, laid her keel on a Friday, christened her on a Friday, and launched her on a Friday while captained by a man called James Friday. It was never heard from again.

Some other days that were “banned” for sailing activities are Thursdays, Fridays, the first Monday in April or the second Monday in August. If Fridays are considered unlucky days, likely because Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday. Thursdays are bad sailing days because that is Thor’s day, the god of thunders and storms, the first Monday in April is the day Cain slew Abel and the second Monday in August is the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

The best day to set a sail is Sunday.

The “left foot” superstition, as Friday, is known to bring bad luck, therefore, whenever you leave your house, step into an examination room, job interview, aircraft and ship, you must step in with your right foot! If you step in with your left foot, it’s believed that you won’t get the results you expect or you’ll have a terrible day…not mentioning about aircrafts and ships or boats.

Lady Washington. Credits go to the author of the
Lady Washington. Credits go to the author of the “There is a horse in by Bubble Bath”

The celebration of the launch of a new boat has ancient origins. For the Greeks, libations to the gods were an important rite to be performed before the start of navigation. And the keel of a new ship was made wet before the launch, with the blood of slaves bound in chains.

Likewise, the Vikings sacrificed prisoners to the gods, shedding their blood on the deck to protect their new ships.

For the ancient Romans, cutting their hair and nails when the weather was good was a bad omen. So was sneezing, swearing and dancing on board ship.

Nowadays the launching ceremony, a bottle of champagne will replace the blood. Regardless of this “replacement”, many sailors would feel bad if the bottle does not break against the bow on the first attempt. Another event that seems to confirm this superstition is the celebration of the launch of a new boat – Independence, which was registered under Romanian flag on May 27, 1979. The bottle did not break and the one that pushed the bottle on the bow was Nicolae Ceausescu wife, Elena. This oil tanker was on the sea until October 15, 1979 when was hit by a Greek boat and burnt for 29 days. 42 seamen died, 13 were declared missing and only 3 survived the collision.

A cat on board, especially a black one, brings luck. All ships are plagued with rats, but they will desert a doomed vessel, so it’s bad luck when the little vermin are gone.

Another myth about “black cats” and the sea, started in Yorkshire. People there believed that a household with a black cat will bring the seamen home. In fact, there was a high demand of such cats and guess who were the buyers? -The wives of seamen 🙂 In Michigan, a cursed ship/ boat to not have a complete crew, was called “black cat”.

Some of sailors tattoos explained
Sailors tattoos explained (some)

It is said that a sailor without no tattoos is a new sailor. When some people get a tattoo for fun or because it’s trendy, for sailors this is a serious business. In the days of sailing ships, falling overboard could mean death, even if your shipmates saw you. Sailors would have large tattoos of Jesus or the Virgin Mary inked across their backs. They hoped this would prevent the punisher from lashing too hard. Some other tattoos one will most likely see on sailors arms and backs are: nautical star, as the North Star, a pig, a hen or any other animal that cannot swim. It was believed that, when God looks at the boat and sees animals that cannot swim, will prevent that ship from sinking or show them the way to the closest land.

Some other superstitions related to sailing and sailors are:

Some fishermen would not sail if they passed a nun, rook, or a cat on the way to their vessel

Some fishermen would not sail if they saw a rat some ashore off their vessel – assuming that the rat knew something they didn’t!

Never stir tea with a knife or fork

Never cross knives on the galley table

The teapot must not be emptied after the fishing had started. To empty it might make the ship turn over and sink, or result in a poor trip

Never lay a broom on top of the nets

Fish bones were not burnt

Egg shells were broken into tiny pieces (to stop witches sailing in them).

Clergy (known to fishermen as “sky-pilots”) were generally not welcomed onto vessels, although there were some notable exceptions

Never cut bread and then turn the loaf upside down

The salt-pot must not be handed from one crewman to another – “pass salt, pass sorrow”

Upturning a hatch cover or sleeping on the stomach were actions said to anticipate the boat turning over and sinking

Losing a hat overboard signified a long trip

Taking a watch to sea signified bad luck

Eat fish from the head to the tail for good luck. If you start at the tail it will warn the shoals away from the shore and back into deep water

Flat-footed folk are unlucky

Set an odd number of nets, such as 101; the extra one is “for luck”

Don’t count the number of fish you’ve caught. If you do you won’t catch any more that day. Count the fish when you are safely back in port

Don’t use certain words at sea, such as: pigs, fox, cat, hare, salmon or rabbits, the church, or anything to do with the land

Scottish fishermen should throw one of the crew members overboard and then haul him back in. The fish will follow suit.

If fishermen ans sailors were busy following those rituals and making sure they do not make angry Gods, their wives had to follow some simple rules:

Washing clothes was considered to bring troubles to the house. It meant that her husband would run the risk to be ‘washed’ overboard.

Waving him good-bye was a bad omen, it meant that the ‘wave’ would sweep him away.

A wife should refrain from calling out after him once he sets foot outside the front door, to go down on the fish dock to see him off was also not accepted.

To whistle was believed to cause a storm at sea.

There are more superstitions linked with the sea, for example bananas, green colour or ginger haired people. To read more about them go here, herehere and here.

One last thing I want to mention about sailor, fishermen and navy – the Neptunus Rex ceremonies. It seems like a fun moment in the daily routine. During the ceremony, those sailors who have not yet crossed the equator are put through various tasks, teasing, and trials, before being presented to King Neptune and his court, including a Queen and other Royal attendants. After going through the ceremony, the pollywogs become “shellbacks,” and are presented with a large certificate and smaller identification card that notes their new status.

Photograph of a crossing the line ceremony, USS William P. Biddle, January 19, 1943. Charles Bradwell Collection, Veterans History Project,
Photograph of a crossing the line ceremony, USS William P. Biddle, January 19, 1943. Charles Bradwell Collection, Veterans History Project
A Neptune's certificate given on board U.S.S. Saratoga May 1936
A Neptune’s certificate given on board U.S.S. Saratoga
May 1936

Regardless of your believes,

Travel safe and wise!


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