Since the beginning of time, sailors have been a superstitious lot. Although many superstitions were popular centuries ago, modern-day mariners still believe many of these superstitions today.
Step onto the boat with your right foot
Before setting sail, mariners must always step onto the boat with their right foot first. The left foot is thought to bring bad luck for the upcoming journey. This may stem from the idea that favoring the left side of the body, like being left-handed, was linked to the devil.
You may have heard the saying, "Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." This is generally interpreted that a red sunrise indicates bad weather. Although originally a superstition, there is some scientific backing.
Don’t bring aboard a “Jonah”
A “Jonah” means a person who is bad luck, and the term is based on the biblical prophet, Jonah. The common-day “Jonahs” are redheads and women. However, naked women are thought to calm the sea, which is why many ship figureheads feature a bare-chested woman.
Bananas are long thought to bring bad luck, especially on ships. This superstition may have originated when many disappearing ships in the 1700s happened to be carrying bananas as cargo. Another theory is that because bananas spoil quickly and cause other fruits to ripen, they make supplies diminish sooner.
Children born on ship
Although primarily referring to a male born on board as good luck, it is thought that any child born on a boat is good luck. The term “son of a gun” actually refers to male children born on the gun deck (the most convenient place to give birth on a ship).
Avoid certain words
To ensure the ship and the crew’s safety, some words are to be avoided while on a boat. Words such as “drowned,” “goodbye,” and “good luck” are thought to bring bad luck. To reverse the curse of the words, one must draw blood.
Whistling is mainly considered bad luck, but there are some instances where it is believed to bring good fortune. It is said that to whistle is to challenge the wind, which will “whistle up a storm.” According to legend, whistling on board also encourages the wind to increase, benefitting the ship’s speed.
A black cat may be considered unlucky in many cultures, but actually, cats of all colors are welcomed on ships. Cats help kill rodents, which would otherwise damage stored food. Additionally, cats were believed to have supernatural powers that would protect ships from dangerous weather.
Days to sail
Some sailors believe that they should not start a voyage on Thursdays, Fridays, the first Monday in April or the second Monday in August. Fridays have typically been considered unlucky because Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday, and Thursdays are bad for setting sail as the day is named after Thor, the god of thunder and storms. The first Monday in April is the day Cain slew Abel, and the second Monday in August is the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
Changing the boat’s name
To change the name of a boat is bad luck. It is thought that boats develop a life and mind of their own after they are named and changing the name can be seen as trying to trick the gods of the sea. One may rename their boat, but they must perform a de-naming ceremony.
It was believed that seabirds carried the souls of dead sailors, so it is considered bad luck to kill one. However, you’re in luck if you see one flying overhead!
Flowers may be a pretty sight aboard a boat, but because of their close relation to funerals, they are bad luck. If flowers were gifted before setting sail, they (and any leftover petals) were quickly thrown overboard.
Symbols have always held a strong power over sailors, so tattoos of specific images were often found on seafarers. Common tattoos included nautical stars or compass roses to help guide them, and roosters or pigs on their feet to protect them from drowning. The animal tattoos are believed to have developed significance because lighter livestock would often survive shipwrecks in their floating crates.