5 Sailing Superstitions and Where they Came From

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Sailors are often known for their superstitions.  The crew not being typically very well educated, they invented reasons for things that would bring apparent bad luck on board.  Here are my 5 favorite sailing superstitions.

  1. No bananas on board the ship.


photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of

This is an old superstition, that doesn't really have a specific time stamp on it, though definitely reaches back at least into the golden age of sail. 
Bananas were thought of as bad luck for several reasons:

  • Snakes, mosquitos, and other vermin would hide among the bananas on board the ship.  The mosquitos could carry disease in them (like the yellow fever outbreak in Saint Augustine).  This would not only kill the sailors on board, but also the people in the town they were destined for.
  • Sailors believed bananas on board was bad for any other fruity cargo.  This is in fact true, bananas release a gas that cause the deterioration of other fruits.  Though sailors not knowing that, just attributed the bananas to being rotten luck.
  • Since the fastest ships were used to haul bananas, any trolling lines to catch fish would be unsuccessful.

    2. Red Heads & WomenFullSizeRender

    Red heads and women were both considered bad luck on board a ship as well.   There is no apparent reason to why red heads are bad luck, but the myth goes if you speak to them before they can speak to you, the bad luck is canceled out.  Women, on the other hand, are considered bad luck because they distract the men, and this in turn angers the sea, and sea gods and so on.  Luckily enough for men, naked women apparently calm the sea, which is one of the reasons the figurehead of a ship often shows a woman's bare breast.  As is shown on the Freedom in the photo to the right.
    Of course this rule isn't followed too often now-days, considering many crew (including many on board the Freedom) are women.


    3. No whistling on board the ship.

    I can remember my dad telling me this one as long as I can remember being on board our boats.  "Don't whistle," he would tell me, "you might whistle up a storm!".  Unless of course it was a day with absolutely no wind,  then it's perfectly acceptable to "whistle up the wind."

    4. Scratching the Mast

    Another trick of sailors who's voyage seemed to be lacking wind, was the superstition of scratching the mast.  If all was calm, taking a nail and scratching on the side that you wished for the wind to come from would supposedly rustle up the wind and get the ship moving again.
    Again, not an practice too often followed now, especially in the day of carbon fiber masts.  That's a little bit of an expensive fix for some more wind.

    5. Renaming

    Though origins of the myth are relatively unknown, many a sailor will tell you it is bad luck to rename your ship.  If a vessel does have to be renamed, a de-naming ceremony, along with a renaming ceremony, are both in order.  The Freedom was originally called the Norfolk Rover, and my mom's dad, a Baptist minister, blessed the boat for us.

Have your own sailing superstitions?  Let me know in the comments below and you could be featured!