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Sailing superstitions and their origins

23rd June 2017
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Sailing Superstitions

Sailing superstitions and their origins

Why are sailors so superstitious?

Sailing superstitions and myths abound and have done for centuries. Survival at sea was a battle those aboard a boat had a good chance of losing. There were no instant weather reports, no engines, no communications and only crude navigational instruments. Sailors couldn’t ask Mr Google what those big black boils under the armpit were and get 27,000 possible answers.  The only thing they could do to aid safe passage was to try to prevent bad luck. Superstition and myth grew and flourished.

Even now many sailors and fishermen still uphold certain ancient sailing superstitions and myths. Break them and you may be reminded with a short, sharp kick to the testicles and being renamed Jonah. If the kick was hard enough you may even become a Joanna. The sea can be a cruel place and it never suffers fools gladly.


Sailing Superstitions




For centuries sailors have had tattoos to bring them luck. Religious symbols protected them and the North Star helped guide them home. It was also common to have a pig and rooster tattooed on the feet. It was believed that as these animals were not known for getting Olympic medals in the 100m freestyle, God would look down kindly on them and help them to shore. This tradition is still thriving today albeit in a slightly different form. Now you see some pig ugly women and men who are total cocks adorning their bodies with tattoos. Personally, I cannot understand tattoos. It is a form of graffiti that should only be seen on the wall of a urinal. If you want to make a statement get a tee shirt. They look better and can be changed when you move onto the next relationship.


People with flat feet and ******’*

In sailing superstition folk law, it is bad luck to meet a flat-footed person on the way to the boat. The same goes for… well, the word has a “I” in it, two “G’s”, a “N”, one “E” and ends in “R”. No, I have to say it. “Ginger”. There, I said it. If you meet either of these two people on the way to the boat the only way a sailor can avoid bad luck is to speak to them before they can speak to you. Of course, no captain in their right mind would have flat footed or ginger people on the boat. This may explain why Scotland does not have its own navy. In case you’re wondering, it was believed that flat footed people would fall from the rigging more easily and gingers are not to be trusted. (Judas Iscariot was believed to have been ginger).


Personal hygiene.

Men on long voyages are not known for personal hygiene. In fact, put a few men on a boat for a week and it will soon smell like a student’s fridge. Their underpants and the bottom of that student’s fridge may even look the same. There is a good reason for this however. It is bad luck to cut your hair, your nails or even shave when out at sea. Hair and nails were traditionally given to Prosperine, a Roman Goddess for good luck. Obviously throwing them in the sea where Neptune was king would only wind him up which is not the best of ideas. So, ladies, we men and diapers have one thing in common. We are full of the same stuff.


Money when leaving port.

Sailors should know it is bad luck to have money on them when leaving port as the sea only rewards the needy. Now, you have a choice here. Tradition states that you throw your money over the side to Neptune. I have seen Neptune’s bank balance and know that he has a platinum Mastercard. I think it only right and proper you send any monies to me rather than throwing it overboard. It is one of the reasons sailors of yesteryear wore gold earrings. Should disaster befall them or the boat then the earring could be used to pay for a burial.


Putting a silver coin under a mast.

Another money related sailing superstition is that a silver coin should be placed under the mast. This dates to the ancient Greeks who placed coins on the eyes of the dead. The coins are to pay the ferryman to take them across the River Styx and on to the underworld. Apparently, he only takes cash and you don’t get a receipt. Without payment, you are basically stuck in limbo for eternity. Obviously when the boat is sinking there is a bit of a scramble to get to the coin as it does not cover the entire crew. The good news is that the ferry man has not kept pace with inflation so the price has been the same for a few millennia.


Women on boats are bad luck.

sailing superstition say a woman's bare breasts can calm the seas

Where do I start. Books could be written about women and boats but it is bad juju to have them aboard. No one knows the exact origins but it was likely started by Captains who did not want women distracting the crew from their duties.

From the day the keel of a new boat is laid until the day it is complete it is bad luck for a woman to see the construction.

Certainly, you should never name a boat after the woman you are engaged too. The boat will be jealous and may never let you have peace. Personally, I have found that it is usually the other way round.

When going to the boat it is bad luck to meet a woman on the way and certainly never cross them. This makes perfect sense as a woman who has been crossed or indeed a woman who is cross means you are going to end up in a world of hurt.

A woman should never come down and wave a sailor off as it is bad luck, especially when they wave with two fingers.

A woman should never be allowed on the boat because that is just asking for trouble. The only exception is when there is a storm. Superstition says that a woman’s bare breasts will calm the seas. I have two thoughts on this (no, not those two). One is that they never calm me, they just get me more excited but on the other hand it must work. Go into any anchorage where women are baring their breasts as they lay out on the boat. Usually the sea is flat, the sun is shining and there is not a wisp of wind in the air. It is also the reason why so many boats had figureheads of women bearing their breasts and sailors had tattoos of naked women. Today, instead of tattoos you can just nip down below and bring up porn on the internet but sailors of old must have had bad wi-fi out at sea.



Mermaids - Just another sailing superstition?

Many people think that mermaids are good omens but in folk law it is bad news to meet one. They may indicate an impending storm or tell you that you will never reach land. In a way, they are like lady boys. They may look attractive up top but try to get to know them better and you may well end up on the rocks!



A Caul either dried or smoked is a prized possession for the superstitious sailor because it protected him from drowning. It is without doubt the ultimate good luck charm. What is a caul though? It is a protective membrane over an unborn child’s head but on rare occasions the child is born with it still intact. These cauls would be sold to sailors for very large sums of money. On occasions, the sailor would present the caul to the captain to protect the whole ship.


Naming and renaming a boat.

There are numerous sailing superstitions and myths surrounding the naming and re naming of a boat. For a start, it is bad luck to have a boat name that ends in the letter “a”. Also, you don’t name a boat before she is launched as it means she will wake up too soon. A boat used to be christened with red wine signifying the spilling of Christs blood. This has changed as the preferred tipple now is champagne where a bottle is broken over the bow. If the bottle does not break you are in for some bad luck with the boat. A similar thing will happen if you try to break a bottle of champagne over the bow of your new GRP boat. The bad luck will come in the form of a hefty bill for gelcoat repairs.

When it comes to renaming a boat, superstition says it should never happen. You never rename a boat. It came from the time when the name of the vessel used to be carved into the wooden keel. Re naming would mean cutting the old name out and re carving the new one so weakening the boat.

re naming a boat is bad luck

Is this really the way to re name a boat?

If you must rename a boat because it was called “Sexy Thing “or “Mayday” (which is no good for radio calls) or after your ex-wife then you must have a renaming ceremony. Everything that had the old boats name on should be destroyed, including log books (which should be burnt). Some say the boat should be sunk and re floated which I think is taking it a bit far. Another way is to write the old boats name on a piece of paper, put it in a wooden box, burn it and then throw the ashes into the sea on an outgoing tide. My personal favourite is to have a virgin urinate on the bow of the boat although this superstition is impossible to do in places like Essex and Brooklyn.

However it is done, the boat should then go through the christening ceremony and the old boats name should never, ever be mentioned again.



A sailor should never pass another sailor the salt pot. He should first put it down so the other can pick it up to prevent bad luck. If you spill the salt then you should throw some over your left shoulder where the devil traditionally sits. If you have an accident aboard a boat it was good luck to put salt in a plaster, spit on it and attach it to the ear. My wife has shortened this a bit and just spits on me.



Sailing superstition says whistling on a boat is challenging the wind to “Whistle up a storm” and you certainly don’t want to do that. The cook may be exempt as whilst he is whistling he is not stealing the food. A whistle was also the starting signal for the Mutiny on the Bounty. Mutiny for the skipper is the ultimate in bad luck but you would be surprised at how may wives consider it when sailing with their husbands.


Egg shells.

Any used egg shells on a boat must be crushed into tiny pieces and thrown overboard. If you don’t it encourages witches which use the shells as boats. Pretty obvious I thought.



Bananas get some really bad press when it comes to having them aboard a boat. It is hard to say why but I did find out that they give out a gas so it may not be a good idea to have lots of them on a wooden boat. They may also have a few poisonous creepy crawlies living amongst them which again is not a good idea on a boat. Fishermen especially are very superstitious when it comes to bananas believing that they will not get a good catch if they have them aboard.



There are certain animals including pigs, rabbits and foxes that bring bad luck. These are land loving animals and have no place on a boat nor should their names be mentioned. I wonder if Noah ever knew of this superstition?


Black cats.

Black cats are lucky whereas ginger brings bad luck

Cats are a perfectly good waste of DNA in my opinion but they form a large part of sailing superstition. Whilst a black cat may be a bad omen for land dwellers sailors loved black cats believing they had mystical powers and would often have them aboard boats. Cats like rats. Sailors don’t like rats.

Black cats are also said to possess strange powers that could protect the boat against bad weather. If the cat came to you it was a good omen. If it started walking towards you and then turned away you may as well throw yourself overboard. Just don’t throw the cat over as that is certain to bring bad storms and if you managed to survive the storm the boat would be cursed with nine years of bad luck. Nope, the cat stays but as women are such bad luck aboard a boat guess which one goes overboard first?


When not to set sail.

Everyone knows you should never set sail on a Friday but why? Some say it is because it was the day Jesus got his nails done. You can also count out Tuesday and the occasional Monday. In fact, there were another 32 “Evil Days” not to sail on which are usually associated with some date in the Christian calendar. Then again it could be the sailor’s union pushing for less hours and more pay. Apparently, any Sunday (resurrection) in October is a good month to sail apart from 6th. Did I mention Thursdays as well (Thor’s day, the bringer of storms)?


How to board a boat.

You have managed to get to the boat without meeting any gingers, flat foots or cross women. Also, you avoided anyone saying goodbye or safe journey (both unlucky as you may never return). Now, you can safely step onto the boat. Wait! You must step on and off a boat with your right foot. Doing so with your left foot is a sign of the Devil. (Jesus is always depicted as being right handed and the devil left handed.


Time to leave port.

Taking the kings shilling

Being the superstitious sailor, you followed every rule so now it is time to set sail. Well not just yet. You should open a bottle of rum and give each crew member a tot. The remainder is to be given to Neptune and a toast is made for safe passage. So, at last we can go, can’t we? Well yes, provided you never look back at the port and that there is no loved one there to watch you sail out of sight (sure sign you are doomed). You also cannot call out to anyone on the dock once under way and they cannot call to you either.


What other sailing superstitions and myths are there?

These are just a few of the sailing superstitions and myths surrounding life at sea. You may wonder why sailors are so superstitious? It may help when I tell you that there were about 100,000 British sailors who died during the Napoleonic wars yet only about 1,500 died in actual battle. The vast majority were killed by disease. Sailors knew this was a likely outcome so anything they could do to promote their longevity was adopted and became superstition.

The modern navies of the world fair a little better than their ancient counterparts in terms of survival. Those of us who liveaboard our boats are always happy when we wake up in the morning. It really makes our day but how much of that is down to superstition?

What sailing superstitions and myths have I missed out and is there any superstitions you follow on a boat? Why not leave a comment below and let us know.



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