Superstitions at sea

This article appeared in the North Clare Local this month. I’m a bit obsessed with the sea. 

We can dream! (Wickerfurniture via Flickr)

We can dream! (Wickerfurniture via Flickr)

Ever since I was a small child I have been fascinated by the sea. Having grown up in all-too-inland north Cork, I generally only saw the sea when we visited my grandmother who lived on the Kent coast in England.

The people of Clare are far luckier; the county is home to charming seaside towns such as Miltown Malbay, Kilkee and Doolin, as well as among the world’s most spectacular sea cliffs at Moher.

The sea has captured imaginations and hearts for aeons. When researching this article, I was astounded at the wealth of folklore, legends and superstitions attached to the sea. Such are the wealth of beliefs about bad luck, it’s a wonder anyone ever sailed anywhere.

It was bad luck to sail on a Friday, as that was the day Jesus was crucified. Thursdays were out as it was the day of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. You should never start a voyage on the first Monday of April (the day Cain killed Abel) or the second Monday of August (the day God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). New Year’s Eve was considered another unlucky time. The best day to set sail was a Sunday, as it had divine approval; “Sunday sail, never fail”.

But before you found the right day to sail, you should ensure your ship wasn’t intrinsically unlucky. Women were considered a curse on board. For practical reasons, women distracted the men aboard; they also were considered incapable of hard physical work. However, they were believed to anger the sea. Interestingly, one of the ways to placate the sea was to have a naked woman on board. Understandably, many women preferred to keep their clothes on, so that is why many ships’ figureheads depict nude ladies.

Another way to make sure your ship was lucky was to have a bit of stolen or borrowed wood built into the keel (the skeleton of the boat). It is believed to help the ship sail faster. By placing a coin in the masthead, sailors could ensure good luck and fortune on their voyages. A very ancient tradition is the pouring of wine on deck. This goes back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Babylonians. For Muslims, alcohol is forbidden; instead in times past they would feast on goat or sheep. The Greeks wore laurel, drank wine and asked for the protection of Poseidon, god of the sea. Today, ships are launched with the smashing of a bottle of champagne on the side. If the bottle does not smash, the ship is doomed. Indeed, the bottle remained stubbornly intact during the Costa Concordia’s launch. That cruise liner is currently lying on her side off the coast of Italy, having hit rocks in 2012 with the loss of 32 lives.

A convention steadily adhered to at sea is that the name of a ship should never be changed. Many sailors believed that each ship had her own character, and you would no more change a ship’s name than change a person’s. Doing so was tempting fate. The most famous example of this is the Mary Celeste¸ which was originally called the Amazon.

Moyan Brenn via Flickr

Moyan Brenn via Flickr

You should never aim to high with your ship names; for example if you own a small trawler, don’t call it The King of the Seas, as it is tempting fate. You should also never name your ship after an unlucky vessel, or something intrinsically ill-starred. The Titanic, for example, was named after a race of gigantic Greek gods who were consigned into obscurity after Zeus and pals declared war.

A journey could be cursed ever before a sailor set foot on a ship. Funnily enough, you should never wish a seaman ‘good luck’ before he sets sail, as it will curse the voyage. The only way to negate it is by drawing blood, so therefore the offender can expect a bloody nose.

Seeing a redheaded person, especially a woman, on your way to dock was very unlucky. The only way to counter it was by speaking to them before they spoke to you. Seeing a fox or hare was also unlucky, but a cat brought good luck. A fisherman’s wife should not comb her hair until her husband had returned, and when he did, she should not be the first person to ask about his catch.

An evocative English superstition holds that you should put a hole in eggshells, as witches like to steal them, turn them into boats and cause storms at sea. A hole at the bottom would mean a leaky vessel and the witch would cease her mischief making.

We haven’t even got on board yet- but you must board the ship right foot first!- but there are many more beliefs sailors hold. Next month, we’ll look at superstitious life on the ocean waves.

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