Aboard ship: More sea superstitions

Sigh! (Moyan Brenn via Flickr)

Sigh! (Moyan Brenn via Flickr)

April’s North Clare Local article, all about the sea (again). 

You might remember last month, I covered many of the beliefs sailors pre-voyage. Surely, once they got on the ship, they slackened off a bit?

The simple answer is, no, not one bit. Sailors feared that, having got on board, the sea would promptly dislodge them again and send them to a watery grave. Given the sheer, incredible power of the sea, we can hardly blame them for that. Indeed, many of us landlubbers are scarcely equipped to understand what a trial marine life was in times past. Before the advent of GPS, sailors had to rely on their own knowledge, observation of the stars, compasses and complicated maps to guide them. Food went rotten on long journeys, and all that was left to eat were ‘ships’ biscuits’ or ‘tack’; crackers as hard as nails. Men got scurvy and other diseases we know now to be caused by malnutrition. (Indeed, here’s one for your next table quiz; the reason the Americans call the British ‘limeys’ is because Captain Cook, the man who explored Australia, gave his sailors fruit such as limes in order to ward off scurvy. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, which is found in abundance in citrus fruit.) Weather often conspired against ship and man. For example, the term ‘doldrums’ comes from sailing, and refers to a specific spot in the south Atlantic, where currents and winds could trap ships for weeks on end. Tempers could fray, arguments could start. Added to the fact that many sailors were away from their loved ones for weeks and even months on end, life on the ocean wave sounds anything but romantic.

We have already established that women were unlucky aboard a ship, but so too were priests. Their wearing of the colour black (the colour associated with death), their ability to conduct funeral and last-rite services marked them out as too close to the Almighty by far. Another more pagan interpretation is that the sea has its own gods, and bringing aboard a priest would offend them. It was even unlucky to speak of priests on board, and they were to be referred to as ‘the man with the collar’ instead.

Some poor sailor, or on occasion, a passenger, could be referred to as a Jonah. Like the biblical figure who found himself swallowed by a whale, it meant that they were bad luck for the ship. A Jonah could be anyone, either someone who had survived previous shipwrecks (Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses springs to mind) or had the misfortune to board during a drought of fish.

"Not only have you managed to sink every battleship and aircraft carrier that you've ever sailed on, but now you've gone and knackered a gravy boat!" Uncle Albert was a real Jonah (via YouTube)

“Not only have you managed to sink every battleship and aircraft carrier that you’ve ever sailed on, but now you’ve gone and knackered a gravy boat!” Uncle Albert was a real Jonah (via YouTube)

A very curious superstition concerns bananas. Many sailors refused to have them aboard, believing them to be bad luck. Odd as it sounds, there was a logical reason behind this. When ships first started bringing the yellow fruit back to Europe, they had to travel much faster to ensure the cargo didn’t go rotten. This, naturally, led to increased risk-taking, and a higher likelihood of accidents. Others suggested that bananas fermented in the hold, creating a dangerous gas, which led to explosions. Yet another theory holds that a nasty type of spider hid amid bunches of bananas, biting anyone who dared disturb it. Whatever the reason, don’t be surprised if your fruit bowls are banana-less on your next cruise.

Sailors avoided certain words, such as “goodbye”, and naturally enough “drown”, and also never whistled aboard, as it could whip up a storm. Eggs were unlucky aboard, as was pointing at another ship. You should never cut your nails or hair at sea; Neptune would be unhappy at such offerings, which are generally reserved for the Roman goddess Prosperine. Sharks following your boat was a sign of death, but being pursued by Jaws is generally a bad omen.

Another lovely sea scene (flequi via Flickr)

Another lovely sea scene (flequi via Flickr)

The sea deserved respect; throwing stones in it was the height of bad manners and it was likely that it would drown you for your cheekiness.

So what was lucky aboard? The colour yellow was a favourite of sailors. They also loved to see dolphins, a symbol of good fortune. Seagulls showed land was near, and seabirds were thought to be the souls of dead sailors. Harming one, especially an albatross, was possibly the unluckiest thing you could do. Cats, too, were seen as lucky; they killed shipboard rats, and were great at predicting the weather.

One of the more persistent beliefs about sailors is that they believed that swimming was unlucky. Crazy as it may sound, many seafarers of the past had a fatalistic attitude about life and death, believing that if they were meant to die at sea, they would die. Swimming was, some believed, trying to cheat God.

Next month, I’ll be finishing off the sea with an exploration of sea monsters and famous ghost ships.

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