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Sailors a Superstitious Lot

Once in a while, one hears of a ship that is just plain unlucky or jinked in some way and it got me thinking about myths and superstitions that sailors have. The one I immediately thought of was No Whistling. This led me to discover other myths and quirks of the seagoing community.

Sailors and Pirates were very superstitious and would throw salt over their left shoulder. Throwing salt over your shoulder is a way of keeping the devil at bay. Early seaman believed that a sailor who died from violence or being lost at sea was said to go to


Both these sayings came from our early sailing ancestors.

17th-century sailors who would knock on the wood hull of their ships to listen for worm or rot, hearing a solid sound would imply that the hull was in "ship shape"

When in a conversation a reference is made to 'Good luck' they would sometimes say 'Touch wood' and touch some part of their wooden vessel. The 'good luck' they were implying also referred to the luck they were having and hoping to have while their wooden hull held true and fast during their voyage at sea.


Sailors commonly believed that whistling aboard a boat would bring bad weather. Whistling was said to challenge the wind and cause it to increase, which could bring in a storm. Singing on a boat may also have been forbidden for the same reason. However, if sailors were stuck on windless waters, they may have whistled in hopes of coaxing a breeze to blow them onward.

This belief of “whistling up a storm” was not the only sailors’ superstition regarding weather. Some seafarers also believed that clapping on board would bring thunder and throwing stones into the ocean would cause storms with large ocean swells. Mariners were also wary of bringing an umbrella onto a ship. Because umbrellas are used in bad weather, it was seen as tempting fate to bring one on board. To protect against storms and other misfortunes, sailors sometimes nailed a horseshoe to the ship’s mast.


There are numerous stories of how this sailor superstition started, one being that boats carrying bananas in the Caribbean in the 1700s had to sail swiftly to arrive in port before they ripened, and therefore were moving too fast to catch fish. Others suggest it's because bananas make other fruits ripen too quickly, forcing supplies to go off too soon.

Fisherman also believed that travelling with bananas on board meant they would not catch any fish. This belief may have stemmed from the fact that ships transporting bananas had to sail as quickly as possible or the bananas would spoil before reaching their destination. Because the ships were sailing so quickly, fishermen attempting to fish by trolling rarely caught anything.


People with red hair were also believed to be unlucky. Redheads were not welcome aboard ships and were avoided by sailors before beginning a journey. If a sailor met a red-headed person before boarding a ship, the sailor had to speak to the redhead before the redhead spoke to them. This would mitigate the bad luck of encountering a redhead before setting sail.


Although sailors are notorious for using foul language, there are some words that seafarers avoided because they were believed to bring bad luck. Saying the word “drown” while on a boat was believed to summon the event itself. “Good luck” and “goodbye” was also forbidden, and it was unlucky for sailors’ wives to wave goodbye or call after their husbands once they left the house for a sea journey. Other words pertaining to land brought bad luck if mentioned while at sea, such as pigs, foxes, rabbits, and church. Swearing while fishing was also seen as bad luck.


Ships have commonly sailed with cats on board since ancient times. The primary role of a ship’s cat was to catch and kill rodents on the boat to prevent them from gnawing on wood, ropes and later on electrical wiring. Cats would also prevent vermin from eating food stores or damaging cargo like grains. Rodents also carried and spread diseases, such as the Black Death.

Because cats helped control the rodent problem on ships and also provided a sense of companionship, cats were believed to bring good luck. If a ship’s cat came up to a sailor, that was a good omen. If the cat approached and then turned away, it was a bad omen. For this reason, seafarers kept their ship’s cats well-fed and content. Wives of fishermen sometimes kept black cats at home to protect their husbands while at sea.


Because early sailors believed strongly in the power of symbols and omens, they often tattooed specific images on their bodies to bring good luck or to repel misfortune. Seafarers often had a tattoo of a nautical star or compass rose that was believed to help guide them home.

Sailors also tattooed pictures of roosters or pigs on their feet to protect them from drowning. Many early sailors could not swim, and they believed that the gods would have mercy on them during a shipwreck if they saw the images of animals on their feet. The gods would see the roosters or pigs and scoop the sailors from the water to place them safely back on land.

This superstition may have developed due to the fact that after a shipwreck lighter livestock like roosters and hens would often survive because their crates would float in the ocean.


Anyone who is familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner knows that killing an albatross can bring serious bad luck. In Coleridge’s poem, numerous perils and misfortunes befall a ship after one of its crew members shoots a friendly albatross that visited the boat. Seabirds were believed to carry the souls of deceased sailors, so it was a good omen to see one, but very unlucky to kill one.


Some superstitious seafarers avoid sailing on certain days to protect against bad luck. Friday has historically been considered a bad day for setting sail because it is the day that Jesus Christ was crucified. Thursdays are also believed to be unlucky sailing days because it is the day of Thor, the god of thunder and storms.


Some sailor superstitions saw women on boats as bad luck and banned them from coming on board. But, in perhaps an unsurprising sentiment, men considered a bare-chested woman to be good luck, which explains why so many yacht figureheads are women, which became popular in the 19th century, replacing the previous figurehead of a yacht’s owner or a ferocious animal

One of the oldest and most well-known superstitions was that bringing women aboard a boat was bad luck. Women were said to distract sailors from their duties by arousing their passions or causing jealousy among crew members. When the crew was distracted, this would anger the ocean and cause bad weather or other revenge from the sea gods. Luckily, these nautical superstitions have been put to rest, and women can now serve in the Navy and on fishing vessels without any concern of bad luck.

Early sailors also attributed strange sounds they heard at sea to sirens, which are mythical creatures that are half-woman and half-bird. Sirens were fabled to lure sailors to their deaths by singing sweet songs that drew them into treacherous waters. Other mariners blamed strange sea noises on mermaids that are half-woman and half-fish performing the same deceptive songs as sirens.

The Mythical Creature - The Siren

Cutty Sark Figurehead - The figurehead, represents the witch Nannie Dee, from Robert Burn’s poem, Tam O’ Shanter. where you can discover why she is holding a horse's tail.

This is Cutty Sark's second figurehead carved in 1957, sadly like her predecessor she succumbed to rot. Andy Peters was commissioned to carve a new Nannie Dee, which now adorns the Cutty Sark at Greenwich.

Ironically, naked women were believed to calm the sea rather than agitate it. This is the reason that many ship figureheads depict women with bare breasts. The watchful eyes of the female figureheads were also believed to guide the ship to safety. The ship itself was also referred to as “she,” because it acted as a protective mother that sheltered the sailors from an angry sea.

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