Sailors can be a superstitious bunch. It’s hardly surprising, given the dangers of life at sea in years gone by – but even now, there are some who look out for portents that might please or displease Neptune (pictured below in Gdańsk), and none of them are taught on the RYA Dayskipper courses. So what should we be looking for to forecast what fate has in store?
For sailors, there are some things that can be done to increase the chances of surviving a passage. Don’t let any priests on board (they are associated with funerals), don’t carry a empty coffin in the hold (ditto – an empty coffin is one waiting to be filled), if you happen to bump into a redhead on the way to the dock, always speak to them before they speak to you (we assume that, red hair being comparatively uncommon naturally, they were seen as outsiders and therefore objects of suspicion), and absolutely no bananas or women.
The ban on bananas might have some reasoning (albeit misguided) behind it. Let’s assume a mathematician had been looking at shipwrecks on the lucrative route between Europe and the West Indies; he noted that a high number of boats that went down were carrying cargoes of bananas, and connected the two events in a Monty Pythonesque twist of tortured logic. A sounder reason for avoiding bananas on long passages today might simply be that they don’t last very long compared to some other fruit.
As for women… sailing was (still is, but to a lesser extent) male-dominated work. The presence of a woman on board might understandably distract the rest of the crew and lead to unhealthy competition and jealousy (unless the woman happened to be Anne Bonny, pictured above, who might distract by depriving over-amorous crew of something vital). There was also a lingering belief in sirens and mermaids, seductresses of the sea who would lure ships and crews to their doom. In fact, the only women really welcome on board a ship were those carved of wood and fixed to the prow; apparently, the sight of a figurehead’s naked breasts would calm Neptune.
So, having avoided all these terrors, you can set off relatively safely, yes? More or less. As long as you don’t leave on a Friday (long associated with bad luck because of the crucifixion story), don’t step on board with your left foot first, be certain to go the day after you’ve had your hair cut, and ensure you have some suitably nautical tattoo.
Underway, the dangers are still there. Superstitious sailors never look back once they have left port because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re not ready for the sea (also, if they ignore the harbourmaster’s launch looking for last night’s dues, maybe they will go away). They don’t cut their hair or nails on passage either, as they don’t want to anger Neptune with an offering to Proserpine. They will be careful never to leave a bowl upside down (signifying a capsized ship), and won’t whistle at the helm (unlike Micky, above) for fear of calling up a storm (though if becalmed, whistling could help bring up at least a little wind).
With so many things that could go wrong, it might seem that sailing is the most pessimistic pastime and profession in the world. After all, sailors are people who spend their lives on the water, but resolutely refused to learn to swim on the grounds that being in the water was a one-way ticket to Davy Jones’ Locker. But there are some positive superstitions too.
We’ve seen some of the things that shouldn’t be on board, but there are some that should. A cat is one. This is logical, as a cat on a ship will keep the rats and mice at bay; perhaps not such as issue these days, but vermin have been known to scramble along mooring lines onto yachts. A little wine on deck can also be a good thing, presumably as an offering to Neptune (that guy again!). By this, we don’t mean a few glasses in the cockpit before you release the lines and begin manoeuvring – that’s just asking for trouble; the way to do it is slosh a little around, literally on deck (and use white, it stains less). Sighting an albatross (above) is good luck, as these carry the souls of dead sailors who will lead you to safety (but don’t kill these birds, or face the same dire consequences as the Ancient Mariner). Dolphins and swallows are even better, unless you’re on a lee shore, as they can indicate that you are close to land.
On our little boat Amneris, we’re not very superstitious. Probably for the best, as Aleksandra is often closer to being a redhead than not, and loves bananas. She might say a prayer in tough conditions (not to Neptune, but to the Big Man in the sky) – and it is said that there are no atheists in a storm or on the battlefield. Anthony is an exception to that rule, but he is obsessive about not flicking cigarette butts over the side – not just for logical eco reasons, but because he does kind of believe that it doesn’t do to disrespect the sea when you’re a sailor. Aleksandra loves to swim too, and Anthony hates it. Unlike sailors of years gone by, he learned to swim specifically in order to get out of the water, not as a reason to get into it.
The only ritual that is an absolute must for both? After tying up and taking a shower in a new port, it’s essential to find an Indian takeaway…