It is universally accepted that if an activity is dangerous, it is likely to come with its own set of bespoke superstitions. The purpose of these superstitions of course is to load the dice in your favour by warding off the bad stuff and encouraging the good - and while modern boaters enjoy some astonishing technical aids to make things easier, safer and more reliable, both the number and the persistence of our marine superstitions suggests that sailors continue to hold a healthy fear of the unique challenges posed by the sea. So whether you are a traditional ‘paper chart and sextant’ sailor or a modern ‘touchscreen and joystick’ kind of man, it’s surely worth supplementing your gadgets and your know-how with a little wisdom from some of the world’s most enduring (and occasionally bizarre) seafaring superstitions…
The sensible and the silly
First up, bananas and women. Both are notoriously bad luck on board a boat and while that may sound quite arbitrary, there is actually some good sense behind it. Bananas can apparently give off dangerous gasses when confined in bulk below decks, potentially knocking out or even killing your crew. And as for women, it’s no great secret that a woman can send a man to the heights of passion and the pits of despair, sometimes within the space of a sentence - and throughout the ages, such intense and unpredictable emotions have proven less than productive among 400 hungry, lonely sailors in the confines of a ship.
While these superstitions are based on a laudable respect for practicality, some beliefs advocate a course of action of such self-evident prudence that they really ought to go without saying. For instance, you should avoid wearing the clothes of a dead sailor when you go to sea. If you do, your entire ship’s company is in for a tough time - and not just because you stink of rotting flesh or because you are too tight-fisted to buy a fresh set of bell-bottoms - but because your actions have most likely condemned your entire crew to a watery grave.
On a less pragmatic note, it is also said that naming your boat after an engaged woman is a major mistake because it will make your vessel jealous, resulting in shipwreck. But if you have already fallen into the trap of a poorly chosen boat name, attempting to change it will radically escalate the severity of the consequences. So if you are foolish enough to name your boat after a girlfriend who subsequently leaves you for someone younger and more handsome, you need to stick with it - or face the consequences, which in the vast majority of renaming misdemeanours is sinkage and death.
Ten best superstitions
(1) Avoid greenery in the wheelhouse, as plants seek the earth and frequently crop up at funerals. Neither are good omens for your boat and your crew.
(2) Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck, as it is viewed as an offering to the Gods. However, an accidental spillage accompanied by a swearing fit and frantic sucking of your clip-in carpet does not count.
(3) Fear of things to the left is a famous sailor affliction - so never leave or enter a boat using your left foot and if you find a right boot, then make sure you win good fortune by nailing it to your mast.
(4) Black is the colour of two things - death and very deep sea - so no priests or black travel bags should ever be allowed on board your boat (though bizarrely, black cats are a good omen).
(5) If you kill a wren on New Year’s Day and carry its feathers about your person, you will not die in a shipwreck. You may of course die by some other sea-related means but at least you’ve narrowed the Grim Reaper’s options.
(6) A naked woman at the bow will calm the sea - and if her eyes are open, she will guide the boat through navigational obstacles to safety.
(7) If you encounter a red-haired person en-route to your boat, speak to them before they speak to you or prepare for a disastrous voyage.
(8) Never say ‘Good luck’ or allow someone to say ‘Good luck’ to you unanswered. If they do, the only way to counter it is to draw blood, so you need to deliver a swift punch to the nose in order to nullify the curse.
(9) Earrings and tattoos are extremely good luck, so model yourself on a pirate and you won’t go far wrong.
(10) Shaving, cutting hair, trimming nails (or generally indulging in rituals considered to be good hygiene) is bad luck. These bodily offcuts were often used as offerings to Proserpina and you don’t want to make Neptune jealous.
The people who adhere to these time-honoured seafaring rules seem to trust them with as much faith as the rest of us invest in our navigational equipment - and that makes a fair bit of sense. After all, do you always take a visual fix to verify the cursor position on your chart plotter? No you don’t, you just trust it. And does a seasoned, God-fearing, wide-eyed sailor of the seven seas, faced with the battering of oceanic swells and ferocious storms, question whether two thousand years of seafaring wisdom is flawed? No he doesn’t. He just goes about his business with a wooden maiden on the lookout for danger and a name on his ship as immutable as the stars. Personally, as a techno-loving iPhone navigator with a healthy fear of the sea, I find myself with a foot in both camps. The next time I head out on a boat, I will do my best to step right-footed past a black cat with a mute redhead on my arm, but just in case that doesn’t guarantee good fortune, I might just pack the EPIRB too . . .