Oct 31

Naval Superstitions – A Sailor’s Antiquated Guide to Avoiding Bad Luck

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 9:55 AM

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It’s that time of year once again! Where children and adults alike dress up, go to fun parties, and probably eat far too much candy. It’s also a time of spooky stories and superstitions, which is what I decided to research for my dive into naval history this month.

An eerie glow winks out from diving helmets aboard the USS Escape (ARS-6), serving as Jack-O'-Lanterns for the ship.

An eerie glow winks out from diving helmets aboard the USS Escape (ARS-6), serving as Jack-O’-Lanterns for the ship.

Growing up in Wisconsin, sailors and maritime life was not something familiar to me. Most of my impressions of sailors came from movies, television, and books, and one theme always stuck out more than any other: they were just a little bit spooky! There always seemed to be an air of mystery or hidden knowledge in their words and actions. If a sailor gave a cryptic warning, you could be sure the protagonist who didn’t listen would find themselves regretting the choice later. Or the sailor would do something that seemed nonsensical or mad, only to have it be what saved the man from catastrophe in the end.

While I know now that the average sailor is not very spooky at all, these portrayals of seamen come from the rich history of superstition that surrounds sailing and maritime culture. For hundreds of years, humans have traversed the seas, and early on these sailors realized the powerful and mysterious nature of the ocean and currents. Going out into that big, blue expanse with little to no guarantee of returning would make most of us turn and reach out for anything that could give us a semblance of control over our situation. And in many ways, that is where superstitions come from. A semblance of control. When faced with the power and might of the ocean, who wouldn’t want that?

So what kind of rules would a superstitious sailor of a bygone era adhere to? After doing some research, I’d imagine the list would look something like this:

  1. Do not interact with flat-footed people or redheads before boarding a ship, as they will bring you bad luck. If you do meet one, speak to them before they speak to you.
  2. Do not cut your hair, shave your beard, or trim your nails. Personal grooming is bad luck for the ship.
  3. Keep tight hold of your hat! A hat overboard means a long trip ahead.
  4. Purchase a caul (a membrane that covers the face of a newborn baby) to prevent the crew from drowning.
  5. No whistling! You don’t want to “Whistle up a storm” by accident.
  6. Do not let your wife call out or wave goodbye to you once you’ve left your home, lest you want more bad luck!
  7. Don’t talk about things to do with the land, or say the words “drowned,” “goodbye,” or “good luck.”
  8. Do not stir your tea with a knife or fork, or turn a cut loaf of bread upside-down
  9. No women! They anger the sea by distracting the crew. (Unless, ironically, they’re naked, in that case they calm the sea. This is why many figureheads are bare breasted women.)
  10. No Bananas! They are the most unlucky of foods. Beware a cargo of bananas, as you’ll probably die transporting them.
Someone didn't give this figurehead carver the memo; this female figurehead's demurely covered torso was sure to anger the ocean.

Someone didn’t give the wood carver the memo; this female figurehead’s demurely covered torso was sure to anger the ocean, according to superstition.

While some of these superstitions sway more towards the nonsensical than others, it is still fascinating to see what sailors of the past thought would harm them if they weren’t careful. It’s also wonderful to see how much we’ve grown past these superstitions (even if some took a bit longer than they should have – I’m looking at you, bananas).

Captain Joy Bright Hancock, her red hair on display, posed for this portrait in the 1940s.

Captain Joy Bright Hancock, her red hair on display, posed for this portrait in 1953. She was one of the first women officers of the U.S. Navy.

Still, the next time I step on a boat and I purse my lips to whistle, I might hesitate for just an instant, and search the skies for clouds. After all, you can never be too careful at sea.