It is a recognized fact that sailors can be very superstitious. In the past their voyages could last for many years with the very real possibility that they will not make it back home. Shipwrecks were commonplace. Superstitions were a way of allowing sailors to feel like they had control over a destiny that was both uncontrollable and often unfavourable. Here are a few of the more common ones and a little about their origins.
Dolphins have been seen as special for centuries. Poseidon, the sea god, was invariably depicted surrounded by them. In Greek lore dolphins were believed to be rescuers of humans. They like to bring things to the surface and there is actually some good evidence that they do indeed intentionally save people in danger. Chinese, Byzantine, Arab as well as European sailors all have accounts of dolphins rescuing ships or sailors in distress. And dolphins swimming with the ship are seen as a good sign: you are under their protection and will encounter fair weather and following seas.
Lucky black cats
While ashore many consider a black cat unlucky, onboard cats, especially black, were thought to have magical powers stored in their tails that could guard ships from adverse weather conditions. Although unhappy a cat could also summon a storm! There was also a very practical reason for having a cat onboard. They are great pest controllers, eating all manner of rodents and insects which can damage lines and stores. A ship's cat would also create a sense of home and warmth to sailors who were often away from home for a long time.
Tattoos on sailors can be traced back to the 1700s when Captain James Cook arrived in the South Pacific. His crew decided to get tattoos as "souvenirs" of their visit. This voyage was considered a huge success which engendered the belief that tattoos brought good luck and protection, and the connection between sailors at tattoos steadily increased.
In ancient Greece, the swallow was connected with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, and they were believed to bring good luck and happiness. Across the ages have also been seen as a symbol of hope. However sighting a swallow while onboard is more likely to relate to the fact that they are land-based birds and seeing them at sea indicates that land is nigh and the long voyage coming to an end.
Today women own some of the largest superyachts in the world and many are yacht designers and captains in their own right but in the past women were often banned on ships. They were considered too physically inferior to be of any use in sailing the vessel while also disrupting the men on board and leading them into immoral acts. Paradoxically a bare-chested woman was seen to bring good luck, which explains why so many yacht figureheads are bare-chested female figures.
There are a number of different ideas about how bananas and bad luck ended up being connected. It dates back to the 17th / 18th century when there were so many ships carrying bananas from the Caribbean to Europe. One thought is that it relates to the number of overladen ships which sank while another points to the fact that bananas play host to any number of tropical creepy-crawlies that can quickly infest a ship. Bananas are particularly frowned upon on fishing boats; they ripen very fast and it was difficult to troll for fish on such fast-moving vessels.
The second bad luck omen refers to whistling on ships. The notion that one could "whistle up a storm" was less than desirable and could be disastrous. It has been suggested that whistling has been considered unlucky since the mutiny on the Bounty when Fletcher Christian used a whistle to indicate the start of the mutiny against Captain William Bligh. Not a particularly happy tale for all involved.
Perhaps one of the most lasting superstitions is that it is unlucky to "set sail" or begin a journey on a Friday, especially Friday the 13th. Jesus is believed to have been crucified on a Friday. Therefore, this day should be observed as sacred and it is unlucky for anyone who goes about business as usual. There is a tale that in an attempt to shed disrepute on this superstition the British Navy launched a ship called HMS Friday on a Friday. Unfortunately, according to legend, she also sank on her maiden voyage.
And a few of the more unusual and lesser known ones:
• Always coil ropes clockwise; never anti-clockwise
• To throw an old pair of shoes overboard just after launching is a good omen
• Don't sleep with your head towards the bow.
• Horseshoes on a ship's mast help turn away storms.
• Handing a flag thru the rungs of a ladder is bad luck.
• Losing a mop or bucket overboard is a sign of bad luck.
• Cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck.
• A child born on a ship is a good sign (we wonder how this happens given women were unlucky!)
• To touch the collar of a sailor brings good luck
• Always step aboard using the right foot first.
• Seeing a cormorant is good luck
• Never open a tin can from the bottom.
The history of the sea involves many centuries of folklore and superstitions, traditions and rituals. And while none of them are relevant in the light of the technology onboard luxury charter yachts today they are an interesting insight into the lives of sailors from a different era.
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