Between the devil and the deep blue sea


Centuries ago, when man first set out to sea, sailing was far more dangerous than it is today. Not only did they have to weather unforgiving climatic conditions, but pirates too. There was an element of uncertainty in every voyage and the slightest mistake could spell disaster for all on board. This bred certain traditions and beliefs, based upon experiences the sailors had. To minimise their lack of control and to reduce the risk of such journeys, they created superstitions.

Today, there are as many sailing superstitions as barnacles on a boat. And for your convenience, I have classified a few of them into the following easy-to-refer categories:

Bird Superstitions

Swallows seen at sea are a good sign.

Sighting a Curlew at sea is considered bad luck.

A Cormorant sighted at sea is bad luck.

It is unlucky to kill an Albatross or a Gull. They host the souls of dead sailors.

The feather of a Wren slain on New Years Day will protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck.

Day / Date Superstitions

Never start a voyage on the first Monday in April.  This is the day that Cain killed Able.

Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August.  This is the day Sodom & Gomorrah was destroyed.

Starting a cruise on December 31 is bad. This is the day Judas Iscariot hanged himself.

It is bad luck to leave port on a Friday. Because it is believed that Christ was crucified on a Friday, this day must be observed and respected and will be unlucky for anyone who attempts to go about business as usual.

Sunday is the best possible day to begin a voyage. This observation is due to Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday, a good omen. It has led to the adage, “Sunday sail, never fail”.

If one man was to ask a match from another on a Monday, the giver would break a bit off the end of it, so as not to part with his luck for the week.

Pet / Animal Superstitions

A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck.

Contrary to the land based superstition, black cats are considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea. Also, cats carry lightning in their tails and can call the wind by sneezing. Anger the ship’s cat and it may call a gale.

It is unlucky to see rats leaving a ship.

Good Luck Superstitions

To smash a bottle against the boat just before sailing is considered very lucky because by spilling the wine or champagne on board meant appeasing the gods.

It was also considered ‘lucky’ … For sailors to have tattoos. To throw an old pair of shoes overboard just after launch. For a child to be born on the ship. For sailors to wear gold hoop earrings. To touch the collar of a sailor. To step aboard using the right foot first.

Personal Hygiene Superstitions

If you have a clean set of teeth before you go out on the water, the wind will be on your side. Also, cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck.

When the clothes of a dead sailor are worn by another sailor during the same voyage, misfortune will befall the entire ship.

Marine Animals Superstitions

Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck. Dolphins are considered a sacred friend of fishermen, they have the good fortunes of man in mind and their presence indicates that you are under their protection.

A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death.
Sharks were believed to be able to sense those near death.

Physical Characteristics Superstitions

Avoid flat-footed people when beginning a trip. The danger can be avoided by speaking to them before they speak to you.

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey.
The bad luck can be turned away similarly if you speak to the red-head before they speak to you.

If you meet a clergyman, or someone with cross-eyes on the way to the harbor, you are encouraged not to set sail

Strange / Bizarre Superstitions

Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck.

Sailors will on no account part with salt, especially at sea, because to part with salt is to part with luck.

Tattooing a rooster and a pig on each foot will save you from drowning.

Losing a mop or bucket overboard is a sign of bad luck.

If the rim of a glass rings stop it quickly or there will be a shipwreck.

Never say the word ‘drowned’ at sea.

Black clothes and traveling bags are bad luck for a seaman.
Black is the color of death and indicative of the depths of the sea.

Never say “Good luck” or allow someone to say “Good luck” to you. It is most definitely a bad omen and surely brings about bad luck. The only way this can be countered is by drawing blood. A swift punch in the nose is usually sufficient to reverse this curse.

A silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful voyage.

Flowers are unlucky onboard a ship. They could later be used to make a funeral wreath for the dead, therefore becoming a symbol that someone could die on the voyage.

A woman aboard is bad luck. It makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. However, a naked woman is good luck. Which is why in the old days, most ships had semi naked women as figureheads.

Priests are not lucky to have on a ship. They dress in black and perform funeral services.

India Boating, July 09

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