Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney


Ships, the Sea and Superstitions

Ships, the Sea and Superstitions

Fate Has the Last Laugh

By Lynn Whitney

              If you are like most of us, you are probably a little superstitious sometimes.  Even though the word conjures up thoughts of magic and miracles, and some seem downright silly, in fact, there are good reasons behind many of them.  Early mariners in particular were very superstitious, and their rituals have carried over to today’s sailors.

              Imagine yourself on an ancient boat.  Your quarters are dark and musty, your food close to rancid.  You may have been at sea for months or even years with no means of predicting weather conditions and no contact with land.  You are at the mercy of the captain, the wind and the waves.  Your superstitions become a form of magical thinking to help quell your uncertainty, give you a sense of security, and minimize your feelings of lack of control.  The can serve as warnings to save you from the perils of the sea and certain death, and in some strange way, give you comfort.               

              One of the most popular superstitions of the sea involves women on board a ship.  Any old salt will tell you, it’s bad luck!  It makes the seas angry and brings bad luck to everyone on board.  The traditional belief was that women were not as physically or emotionally as capable as men, and therefor had no place at sea.  The reality was more likely that they were a distraction to the men, causing them to neglect their duties.  Conversely, a naked woman could shame stormy seas into calm, which is the reason for many a bare-breasted woman figurehead on the bow of a ship.

              Another superstition with a loosely based truth to it, was the bad luck of the banana.  Many superstitions evolve from the misinterpretation of correlations as causes.  During the height of Caribbean trading in the 1700’s, almost every ship that disappeared at sea was carrying a load of bananas.  This gave rise to the belief that the bananas were the cause of the disasters.  Thus, bananas became bad luck.  An alternate theory was that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented, creating methane gas, which would poison anyone in the hold, including the imprisoned slaves and anyone going below to help them.  Possibly the most reasonable explanation is that lethal spiders would be hidden in the bunches of bananas.  Were the bananas really the source of the bad luck?  Just to be safe, leave them off your shopping list.

              Probably the best known weather predictor;  “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” also has some basis in fact.  Weather conditions come from the ocean to the west.  With clear air, the sunset will be red.  In the morning, red light will be reflected by clouds to the west, which means moisture in the air and the possibility of storms.  The old adage, “A ring around the moon means rain,” also has some scientific fact.  Ice crystals in the atmosphere create the ring.  That means moisture, which could become rain.

              Now on to some more whimsical superstitions.  With the perilous nature of sailing itself, sailors’ thoughts often turned to death, or more likely, how to avoid it.

Harbingers of Death

  • Flowers were forbidden on ships, for the simple reason that they are for funerals.  Clergy were also forbidden for that same reason.
  • If someone was unfortunate enough to die, the body was tossed overboard for a burial at sea.  The body would be sewn into a shroud with the last stitch through the victim’s nose, the theory being that the pain would wake an unconscious person.
  • Most ancient sailors did not know how to swim, and had a deep-rooted fear of drowning.  The word drown was never spoken, and if a man was unlucky enough to fall overboard, a rescue was unlikely, the belief being that, “what the sea wants, the sea will have.”
  • The ringing of bells, other than ships bells, is considered bad luck because of the association with funerals.  However, if a bell rings on its own, someone will die.
  • A shark following a ship means death.
  • A Manta Ray has the power to attach itself to the ship’s anchor and drag her down to Davy Jones’ locker.

Signs of Bad Luck

  • If a cat is thrown overboard, a storm, bad luck and maybe death will follow.
  • A stone thrown from a ship that is putting out to sea will ensure that the ship will never return.
  • A stone thrown into the sea will cause great waves and storms.
  • Looking back once your ship has left port will bring bad luck.
  • Whistling on board will raise up a gale, hence “whistling up a storm.”



  • Killing a swallow, gull, albatross or dolphin will bring bad luck.
  • If a cat licks its fur against the grain, a hailstorm is coming.
  • Pigs – In the West Indies, pigs were held in great respect because of their association with the Great Earth Goddess who controlled the winds.  Out of reverence to her, the word “pig” was never spoken out loud, replace by nicknames such as Curly-Tail or Turf-Rooter.  The mention of the word pig would result in strong winds.  Killing a pig would blow up a full scale storm.
  • If a cat approaches a sailor then goes away, it is bad luck.
  • Rats leaving a ship are bad luck.

Random Warnings

  • Handing a rag through the rungs of a ladder is bad luck.
  • Losing a bucket or mop overboard is bad luck.
  • Never cut your hair or nails at sea.
  • Never paint a boat green.  It will run aground.
  • Never open a tin can from the bottom.
  • Bringing a suitcase on board is bad luck.
  • Never sleep with your head towards the bow.
  • Always hang coffee cups with the mouths facing outboard.
  • Never step on a ship with your left foot.
  • Changing the name of a boat is bad luck.  If you must – write the old name on a piece of paper and place it in a small cardboard box.  Burn the box.  Throw the ashes into the sea on an outgoing tide.  On a lake, do it at night and only during a full moon.  On a river, send the ashes downstream.
  • Red-headed people and flat-footed people are bad luck, but danger can be avoided if you speak to them before they speak to you.

Good Luck

  • Black cats are good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea.
  • Throw a coin into the sea as the boat leaves port.
  • Horse shoes on the mast will turn away a storm.
  • Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck.
  • A silver coin placed under the masthead will ensure a safe voyage.
  • Cats store magic in their tails, so they should be treated kindly and well cared for.
  • If a woman sees a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day, she will marry a sailor.  If she sees a sparrow, she will marry a poor man and be happy.  If she sees a goldfinch, she will marry a millionaire.

Scoff if you must!  These legends have survived for centuries, buoyed by belief or fear or a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.  Or, just maybe, there is some truth in them.

“Most of us aren’t superstitious-but many of us are a littletitious.”