Ancient mariners endured great danger and uncertainties as they crossed the open ocean in search of new worlds. Faced with so many unknowns, sailors put their faith in superstitions, omens and luck. Anything to keep the mind from wandering toward insanity—or thoughts of walking the plank—became omen, legend or superstition.
Today, some of those superstitions persist, but only as weird myths associated with boating. Or are they? We’ll leave that up to you. In the spirit of being superstitious, we came up with this list of 13 of the weirdest of them all.
Charter a guide trip in coastal fishing areas like Florida and the captain might make you leave the bananas behind. Since the 1700s, bananas have been connected with bad luck, especially on ships, and the superstition even persists today on recreational fishing boats. This unusual nautical superstition began during the trading empire heyday between Spain and the banana-bearing Caribbean islands. Trading ships loaded with bananas as the main cargo often disappeared for no reason. Anglers also believed that sailing with bananas on board meant they would not catch any fish. Coincidentally, ships transporting bananas had to reach their final destination quickly, before the bananas could spoil. That left little or no time for fishing. Not so coincidentally, crates of bananas harbored poisonous spiders and snakes that would bite sailors and cause them to suddenly die. So back then, bananas were just an all-around bad deal!
Redheaded men and women were thought to bring bad luck and therefore were not welcome aboard ships. They were also to be avoided before setting sail. A sailor had to speak to a redhead first when encountering that person before boarding the ship. Doing so mitigated the bad luck of encountering a redhead before leaving port.
This commonly used expression of surprise has a maritime origin. Allegedly, the most convenient place on a ship to give birth was the gun deck, for some odd reason. Women generally weren't allowed onboard a ship, but it was considered okay if the newborn was male—a sign of good luck.
This superstition has stood the test of time. Is it weather myth or fact? Weather history suggests the latter. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” is the phrase. Supposedly, a red sunset indicates good weather to come, while a red sunrise means rain and bad weather on the way.
Sailors believed that whistling would bring bad weather to the boat. Whistling was thought to challenge the wind to make it blow, which could bring stormy weather. On the flip side, sailors stuck on windless waters whistled to bring wind to the sails.
Renaming a ship after its christening was considered bad luck. Sailors believed their boats took on a mind of their own once they were named. The reality was that during the lucrative trading days, the best ships developed solid reputations based on their names. Changing the name could cause problems for the captain and crew while trading at exotic ports-of-call. Should you buy a used boat and dislike its name, there is a way around this superstition—hold a de-naming ceremony. Write the ship’s original name on a piece of paper, fold it and place in a wooden box. Burn it and throw the ashes into the sea on the outgoing tide. Rename the ship and pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly!
You might have a hard time convincing a cruise ship crew that flowers are bad luck. But back in the day, flowers were closely related with funerals, and were therefore banned from ships.
The most superstitious sailors planned their trips around certain days. Friday was historically a bad day to sail, because it was the day Jesus Christ was crucified. Thursdays were bad, too, because it’s the day of Thor, the god of thunder and storms. The most superstitious sailors only set sail on Sundays, which were regarded as the best day of the week.
Exploring and trade ships long ago sailed with cats onboard. Their primary role was to control rodents, which gnawed on wood, ropes and later, electrical wiring. Cats would also prevent rats from eating food stores or grains. Rodents also carried diseases. Cats were considered good luck for those reasons. Bringing the weirdness into the mix, some mariners believed that cats had magical weather-controlling powers in their tails.
Sailors strongly believed in the power of symbols and omens (and cats, too), and for those reasons tattooed specific images on their bodies to ward off bad luck. A tattooed nautical star or compass was said to help safely guide home the sailor.
Stepping onto a ship with the left foot was unlucky. Sailors always, always boarded with their right foot first.
Any sound that resembled ringing bells at a church funeral was perceived as an omen to death. That included the sound of wine glasses ringing, which had to be stopped immediately. That also included the sound of the ship’s bells if they rang on their own, such as during a storm.
If you sail the high seas, chances are you have encountered the majestic albatross. This mighty bird often flies in open seas alongside ships to get a free meal. Ancient mariners believed different. Legend had it the birds contained the souls of drowned sailors, who came to join their fellow seamen on the ship. That made them a welcomed good luck charm. On the flip side, killing an albatross meant certain death for the killer.