Lore of The Sea

Sheree Marris | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 5

Banana dramas, forecasting felines, nautical nudity and demonic deities – it’s a bizarre and murky world when it comes to seafaring superstitions.

Most of us, at some point in time, have been guilty of being superstitious or indulging in superstitious behaviour. Ever knocked on wood, walked around a ladder or side-stepped a black cat? Yep? Guilty as charged. But give yourself a break – you’re not on your own.

So what makes us superstitious? By our very nature, humans are control freaks. When we’re exposed to situations with unknown outcomes and consequences, we attempt to find a way to deal with the uncertainty. Which is when superstitions can arise. They give us greater confidence in knowing we’ve done everything we can to ‘control’ the situation and reach a favourable outcome.

Most nautical superstitions originated centuries ago. Imagine sailing on a wooden ship into uncharted waters. There’s no radar, nor communication devices or safety and navigational equipment, and no GPS. Sailors were literally at the mercy of the sea. Going to sea was a risky business and the ocean is the ultimate mean mistress. She can be treacherous and absolutely unforgiving.

Given the hazards they faced, it’s not surprising that ancient mariners were a superstitious lot. Even today, nautical endeavours can be risky and many superstitions have survived the centuries surprisingly intact.

We’ve pulled together some of the most common ones – some are practical, while others are practically nuts. We’ll let you be the judge.

TABBY TIPS

Water, boats and cats seem like a combination that can only end in heartache. But according to sailing pioneers, cats bring luck and the crew won’t get sick with a cat aboard. Rats were known to eat valuable food, damage ropes and carried fleas – which gave rise to bubonic plague. So slip a humble moggie aboard that would happily feast on the rats and your problems were solved.

Apparently, felines can multitask – they are also handy at predicting the weather. If a cat sneezes, expect rain, and if it licks its fur against the grain, batten down the hatches because a hailstorm is on the way. But you definitely don’t want to lose your cat overboard, because you’re going to be punished with the mother of all storms, not to mention being cursed with nine years of bad luck – if you hadn’t already sunk in the process.

One of the beauties of being at sea is the variety of wildlife to be encountered. At the top of the hit list are dolphins. With their freestyle antics and trademark smiles, dolphins are crowd favourites that charm everyone who comes across them, including sailors who, in earlier times, thought they were a sign of good fortune. They definitely didn’t feel the same about sharks, though, and gave them a bad rap way before Jaws scared a generation out of the water. In fact, a shark following a ship was, not entirely unreasonably, seen as a sign of impending doom.

Albatrosses were revered for their magical ability to only flap their wings every few hours to stay in the air, and were said to be able to stay at sea for years at a time. Seeing one was considered good luck, as they were thought to be ‘gods of the wind’.

But if you killed one, look out. Most boaties would be aware of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which a ship is cursed with misfortune and ultimately destruction, when a crewman shoots an albatross with a crossbow.

Being superstitious types, sailors and seamen embraced the tale and ever since, albatrosses visiting ships and boats at sea are treated with a certain reverence in case the rime returns to wreak maritime mayhem.

BANANA DRAMA

Apparently, seafarers are not so bananas about bananas. I’ve actually been promptly marched off a boat after innocently taking one aboard. Bananas to boaties are like sunlight to vampires – the two shall never meet or mix. If this happens, the consequences are dire.

The humble banana has been blamed for illness, deaths, mechanical failures and even maritime accidents. They give off a gas, which prematurely ripens fruit and vegetables, including citrus, which was kept onboard to prevent scurvy. They would also carry nasty hitchhikers such as deadly snakes, creepy spiders and other vermin.

And, of course, anglers are automatically doomed to return fish-less if a single banana makes its way onto the boat … possibly something to do with them being lousy bait and impossible to keep on a hook, I suspect.

Eggs were definitely a risky proposition back in the bad old days. If you were whipping up eggs benedict for the crew’s brekky, you had to make sure you smashed the shells into itsy bitsy pieces. This was, of course, to avoid the intact shells falling into the clutches of wicked witches, who would use them to terrorise sailors, casting spells and sinking ships.

And even utensils have their risks. When stirring tea, a spoon, and only a spoon, must be used. Stirring with a knife or fork invited bad luck, as did passing the salt directly to your fellow crewman. But salt had a flipside – it could bring good luck when applied to nets at the start of the fishing season. How much salt is too much salt? Well, over-salt your nets and those sea gods won’t be happy.

Speaking of catches, I suspect some present-day skippers would be tempted to adopt this one. In some circles, if you wanted to increase your catch you threw one of your crewmen overboard. Fortunately for the crewmen, you were also expected to haul them back aboard.

WANTON WOMEN

When it comes to women and boats, it’s a love-hate relationship to be sure. Apparently, women can melt a sailor’s heart and crush their soul in one fell swoop. It’s no surprise, then, that women were considered back luck aboard ship. Their presence could arouse jealously, distract the crew and cause fights between the men, which obviously angered the sea gods, who had a reputation for being easily upset.

However, there’s an unusual flipside because if the lady in question happened to disrobe, the voyage would be blessed with fresh breezes and flat seas. Of course, how the lady herself might feel about this is open to conjecture, especially if the boat was sailing in the frigid northern or southern extremities. But she could at least console herself with the knowledge that she was aboard a happy and contented ship. This also explains why many early carved wooden bow figurines were topless. Even better if their eyes were open to guide the ship to safety. However, weirdly, redheaded females were considered nothing but trouble, according to marine lore. If sailors saw a redhead (male or female) before the ship left, they had to be the first to speak or the voyage would be cursed with bad luck. I like to think we’re a little more enlightened these days.

Ever wondered why sailors in movies always seem unkempt and sport beards? Well, rather than being examples of an early hipster movement, trimming hair, beards and even fingernails was deemed back luck. And throwing the trimmings overboard only made things worse, as they were deemed to be gifts to Proserpine, the Roman goddess. This, of course, made Neptune, the sea god, extremely angry and the ship would thus be in mortal danger. At this point I probably need to assure you that I am not making this stuff up …

PRECIOUS PLUNDER

Gold was seen as a sailor’s friend, and not just in the form of plundered doubloons and other booty. Sailors often sported gold jewellery, not so much as a fashion statement, but because it was thought to bring good fortune. Gold was believed to possess magical qualities that would protect sailors from drowning if they fell overboard. It was even said that gold earrings would improve eyesight and prevent seasickness.

Poseidon, the Greek version of Roman sea god Neptune, was seen as all-powerful, so you definitely didn’t want to upset him. Unfortunately, though, he was the sensitive, easily hurt type and one sure-fire way to get on his bad side was to change your boat’s name. Poseidon was said to maintain a ‘Ledger of the Deep’ that detailed the name of every vessel that had ever set sail on his waters. If you did risk testing fate by changing your boat’s name, chances were Poseidon would strike his trident in anger, causing savage seas and untold shipwrecks.

But, of course, there is a loophole. It turns out that if you do rename your boat, you also need to remove every written trace of its original moniker, including burning the old name board and scattering the ashes out to sea, followed by a splash of freshwater over the bow. This should be immediately followed by smashing a bottle of fine wine or scotch to appease the gods – a high price to pay, indeed, at least amongst my own sailing friends …

You also need to choose the new name carefully, as names like Storm or Hurricane would definitely be tempting fate, plus those grouchy gods are likely to react poorly – actually, in nautical lore at least, there are few instances of them reacting any other way – unleashing their wrath in the form of – you guessed it – storms and hurricanes.

DAYS OF DREAD

Back in the day, it wasn’t just a matter of checking out the marine weather forecast before setting out for a day – or year – on the water. In fact, if you adhered strictly to nautical superstitions, you would be lucky to get out on the water at all. For a start, Fridays were out as this was the day that Christ died on the cross, while Thursdays were a bit risky, being the day dedicated to Thor, the Nordic god of storms. And don’t even think about the first Monday in April as this was the day when biblical bad guy and son of Adam and Eve, Cain, killed his brother, Abel. Hitting the water on the second Monday in August was definitely out because – you guessed it – the gods would not be happy. The list goes on … and on … and on …

Anyone prone to whistling while out on the briny was in serious peril, indeed. The thinking – if that’s the right word – was that whistling was frowned upon by the gods and would provoke a severe reaction, hence the term ‘whistling up a storm’. Actually, it seemed the gods were really a pretty miserable lot way back when.

And don’t even think about wishing a sailor bon voyage, good luck or goodbye. Similarly, giving them flowers or inviting a priest aboard were all deemed acts that would provoke the gods and bring gloom, if not doom, to all aboard.

Boating in days of old was certainly fraught with enough risk, with all manner of real hazards and dangers that could inflict disaster and destruction on unfortunate crews. Throw in the many imagined gruesome fates that awaited them if they failed to observe the countless superstitions crafted and spread by the mischievous or mentally disturbed and it’s a wonder anyone ever left the docks.


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