Sailors’ superstitions are another good sign that Seamanship or sailing is literally beyond borders… Skills, rules, and practices are mostly the same all around the globe… Even the lore of the sea is more or less the same beyond local cultures. This side of the sea fascinates me the most… like being a member of a global brotherhood.
Speaking of sealore, we have been sharing the same or similar beliefs and superstitions about the sea and seafaring for many centuries. Some of these beliefs are popular superstitions, while others are better described as traditions, stories, folklore, tropes, myths, or legends.
The origins of many sailors’ superstitions are based on the inherent risks of sailing back in the day. Imagine you are a 19th-century mariner, living in the crampy, dark quarters of a sailing ship, at the mercy of unpredictable wind and weather, six weeks from your last sighting of land. No weather forecast, no radio, no satellite communication; no communication with the world. The captain is merciless; the ship is his domain. You and the rest of the crew are worthless in his eyes.
You start seeking support at any small wonder you can grasp, whether real or imaginary. These include luck (either good or bad) as well as signs and omens about the life of a mariner, sailor, fisherman, or crew in general.
Many superstitions about the sea survive to this day. Like most of you, I am practicing most of them whether it’s pure superstition, folklore, or has some factual basis… The question is; do you dare to risk it?
Most common sailors’ superstitions
No personal grooming while sailing
Mariners often looked shaggy while at sea because trimming their nails, shaving their beard, and cutting their hair were also believed to bring bad luck to the ship.
No Whistling Allowed
Sailors commonly believed that whistling aboard a boat would bring bad weather. Whistling was said to challenge the wind and cause it to increase, which could bring in a storm. However, if sailors were stuck on windless waters, they may have whistled in hopes of coaxing a breeze to blow them onward.
Scratching a Backstay
Scratching a backstay was said to give you a favorable wind in the direction needed.
Spit and pour wine before a journey
To bring good luck, sailors often spit into the ocean before setting sail. For a long journey, pouring wine on the deck and water would bring good fortune.
Step aboard with your right foot
Stepping onto a ship with your left foot was unlucky, so sailors always boarded with their right foot first.
Flat-footed people and Redheads are bad luck
People with flat feet were avoided before a voyage and were not welcome aboard ships. As well as redheads. If a sailor met a red-headed person before boarding a ship, the sailor had to speak to the redhead before the redhead spoke to them. This would mitigate the bad luck of encountering a redhead before setting sail.
Pay Your Dues
Seamen who hadn’t paid their debts were blamed for storms and any other misfortunate events that would occur on the ship. So, it is accustomed to paying your dues before a journey.
Flowers are bad omens
Because flowers were associated with funerals and wreaths on graves, they were never brought onto ships. If a sailor’s wife tried to bid him farewell with a gift of flowers, the bouquet was quickly thrown overboard.
Salted Nets Catch Fish
Nets were “salted in” at the beginning of the season to bring good luck. This often took the form of a blessing and sprinkling them with salt. Fishing every day of the week was considered unlucky. Those who did it were greedy, and not satisfied with what the gods of the ocean provided them. Don’t eat anything before the first fish is caught, and never count your fish until the day is over.
No Bananas on Board
Bananas are bad luck to bring aboard a ship, especially a fishing vessel. This belief allegedly began during the 1700s, when many trading ships disappeared while sailing between the Caribbean and Spain. Some mariners blamed the bananas they were transporting for the ships getting lost at sea. Crates of bananas may also have harbored dangerous pests like poisonous spiders and snakes that would bite sailors and cause them to die suddenly.
Coins under the Masts
Sailors believed placing a coin under the mast brought good luck and a profitable voyage. The coins were placed under the masts of a ship as it was being built. The tradition began with the ancient Romans, who placed a coin in the mouths of the dead enabling them to pay a mythological ferryman to transport them across the River Styx to embark on their afterlife.