Superstitions at sea

Wednesday, 11th February 2015

Destination Specialist

greenland northsailing

From expedition cruises in the polar regions to ferries in the fjords, sailing adventures around Canada’s quiet inlets to whale watching boat trips in Iceland, many of our holidays include (or can include) time on the waves. So we’ve rounded up a few superstitions to beware of… or take with a pinch of salt!

Perilous passengers

  • Women on board ship make the seas angry. (It was once though that women were not as capable as men, and would distract them from their duties. According to the same superstition, a naked woman would shame the seas into calm, hence the female figures carved into the bow of many ships.)
  • People with red hair and/or flat feet
  • Priests – they dress in black and perform funeral services; anything that reminds you of death or dying is a bad omen.

Cursed cargo

  • Black travelling bags
  • 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.
  • Bananas in your cargo are an omen of disaster.

Dire days to sail

  • Friday is the worst possible day to start a journey on a boat. The most popular reason for this is the belief that Christ was crucified on a Friday – the day should be respected, and it’s unlucky to go about your business as usual.
  • Other biblically unlucky days to embark: on the first Monday in April, it’s the day that Cain slew Abel; the second Monday in August, the day Sodom & Gomorrah was destroyed; 31st December, the date that Judas Iscariat hanged himself.

Calamitous creatures

  • A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck…
  • …as is sighting a curlew or cormorant at sea
  • Never kill an albatross or a gull as they host the soul of dead sailors
  • Your ship being followed by a shark is a sign of inevitable death

Inauspicious actions

  • Disaster will follow if you step onto a boat with your left foot first
  • Throwing stones into the sea, especially when you’re putting out to sea, is a sign of disrespect and will cause big waves and storms
  • Handing a flag through the rungs of a ladder is bad luck…
  • …so is losing a mop or bucket overboard…
  • …or repairing a flag on the quarterdeck…
  • …and saying the word ‘Drowned’ while at sea.
  • Looking back to port brings bad luck to yourself and the ship since it implies you’re not ready to brave the seas.
  • Cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck too. These were used as offerings to Proserpina, and Neptune will become jealous if these offerings are made while in his kingdom.
  • Wearing the clothes of a dead sailor during the same voyage is also very unlucky

Safeguards for seafarers

Counter the curses and keep an eye out for these signs of good luck

  • Dolphins swimming with the ship – their presence indicates that you are under their protection
  • Swallows seen at sea are a good sign – it means land is near
  • Black cats are good luck (at sea)
  • Pour wine on the deck as an offering to the gods to bring good luck on a long voyage
  • A silver coin under the masthead will ensure a successful voyage.
  • The feather of a wren slain on New Years Day will protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck
  • Sail on a Sunday – it’s the best possible day to begin a voyage (“Sunday sail, never fail”) as Christ’s resurrection was on a Sunday

Brave the waves

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