are a 19th-century mariner, living in the dank,
dark quarters of a sailing ship, at the mercy of
capricious wind and weather, six weeks from your
last sighting of land. There is no marine
weather forecast, no radio, no satellite
communication; in fact no communication with the
world as you knew it for periods ranging from
months to years. You are virtually isolated from
the rest of humanity. The captain is the
absolute dictator; the ship is his kingdom. You
and the rest of the crew are serfs. Small wonder
that you grasp at any support you can, whether
real or imaginary.
Even today, any endeavor based on chance is
predisposed to superstition, ranging from poker to
baseball. A hitter on a hot streak may not wash his
socks or undershirt, or will eat the same breakfast
every day as long as he keeps getting on base.
Pitchers won’t step on the foul line coming off the
field, and woe to anybody who dares mention a
no-hitter while the game is in progress.
Going to sea then was chancier than going into
outer space today, so a mariner’s life was rife with
superstitions. Some superstitions may have had a
tenuous basis in fact, but most were contrived
beliefs and rituals that sailors relied upon to give
them a feeling that, to some small extent, they had
some control over their destiny.
For example, it is considered unlucky to begin a
voyage on Friday. That’s considered an unlucky day
on land as well, probably because it was the day of
the crucifixion. There’s a tale often told, almost
certainly apocryphal, about the British navy’s
attempt to lay that superstition to rest. According
to legend, the ship’s keel was laid on Friday, it
was launched on Friday, and christened the HMS
Friday. Its captain’s name was Friday, and it set
sail for her maiden voyage on … you guessed it …
Friday. The last time anybody ever saw it or the
crew was when it disappeared over the horizon.
Although the story has about as much credibility as
an Internet hoax, it vividly illustrates the power
Many superstitions about the sea survive to this
day. Curiously, they haven’t extended to scuba
diving. Maybe it’s because diving is securely
grounded in fact, and it didn’t get started among
the general populace until the mid-20th century.
Rituals like spitting in a mask or backing off the
valve a quarter turn are based on science and
education. Yet talk long enough to a diver, and
something may come up that defies logic.
I’ll have to admit to one such practice. About
20 years ago I was spending an entire summer in the
Red Sea, working on my first book. I lost my towel
and needed a substitute, so I bought the cheapest
and ugliest one I could find, figuring nobody would
ever pick it up by mistake. It was a horrible
hodgepodge of pink, green, and yellow pastels
depicting palm trees, sailboats, and domed desert
dwellings. It found a home at the bottom of the
cooler that held my camera gear. As the years went
by, I began to refer to it as my lucky towel. It was
more ritual than superstition, but I believed that
as long as the towel was in the cooler, my camera
That belief was put to the test when I failed to
tighten a screw on my housing and flooded a Nikon
N90, destroying it. But I wrote it off to pilot
error, rationalizing that the towel wasn’t to blame;
it was totally my fault. I still have my lucky towel
and take it on every dive trip, whether it’s one day
off the coast of San Diego or several weeks halfway
around the world.
By and large, divers are a pragmatic lot and
none of the ones I surveyed admitted to any
superstitions. There are a few rituals. One diver
won’t leave the dock without his lucky hat. Another
diver carries a copy of the dive tables along with
two computers. Although she is aware that a failed
computer dive can’t be carried over to the tables,
those plastic tables are comforting to her.
When it comes to superstition, though, divers
are bush leaguers compared with sailors and
fishermen. A few beliefs are based on a semblance of
fact, but the majority have no rhyme or reason.
Since divers spend so much time aboard boats it
might be fun to examine some of them.
Salted Nets Catch Fish
Among today’s seafarers, fishers are the leaders
in the superstition department. Even with GPS and
sensitive fathometers, catching those critters is
still a matter of luck. They have some bizarre
beliefs. If they see a red-haired person on the way
to the boat it’s bad luck. Other bad omens include a
black valise, a minister and a cross-eyed or
flat-footed person. A fisher whose finger is stuck
by a fishhook will stick the hook into a piece of
wood to speed the healing process.
Don’t bring bananas on board, or you won’t catch
any fish. And empty your pockets of pennies before
boarding or your catch will be small. Don’t eat
anything before the first fish is caught, and the
first one caught each day must be spit upon and
thrown back. Never count your fish until the day is
over. And never tell anybody where you made a good
catch. That’s got a practical basis. If your
livelihood depends on catching fish, you don’t want
others parasitizing your secret spot, especially if
they have access to GPS coordinates.
Nets were “salted in” at the beginning of the
season to bring good luck. This often took the form
of a blessing, and sprinkling them with salt.
Fishing every day of the week was considered
unlucky. Those who did it were greedy, and not
satisfied with what the gods of the ocean provided
Harbingers of Doom
Flowers are for funerals, and therefore weren’t
welcomed aboard ship. If somebody’s sweetheart
brought some aboard as a bon voyage gift, they were
quickly thrown overboard. Clergy weren’t welcomed
either, for the same connection with funerals, but
they weren’t tossed off the ship.
Sharks following a ship were thought to be a
portent of death. In most cases, they were probably
waiting for the remnants of the day’s meal. I once
had a dive buddy named Crazy John. He had a
.22-caliber rifle and tried to shoot blue sharks on
the surface “…before they get me.” That’s no longer
a factor because gill nets have virtually wiped out
blue sharks in California coastal waters. I stopped
diving with Crazy John after looking into the
business end of his loaded spear gun once too often.
If somebody died aboard ship, the body was
tossed overboard with an appropriate ceremony for
burial at sea. Usually the sailmaker would make a
shroud and sew the body in, making the last stitch
through the victim’s nose. This was the final
assurance that they were indeed dead, assuming the
needle would elicit a scream of pain from an
unconscious or near-dead victim. It was considered
bad luck to keep a corpse on board, and in the days
before adequate refrigeration, the reason was more
than mere superstition. By the same token, an empty
coffin on board meant that a member of the ship’s
crew would eventually be filling it.
Sailors had a fatalistic view of drowning. Most
of them couldn’t swim, so even bathing in the ocean
was considered a dangerous temptation of fate. The
object of survival was staying out of the water, so
nobody went in unnecessarily. If someone fell
overboard, they might not even be thrown a rope
because of the belief that their death was already
preordained. “What the sea wants, the sea will
have,” was a fatalistic belief. Besides, a sacrifice
to the sea gods might placate them so no more of the
crew would follow.
The ringing of bells is also associated with
funerals, so sounds mimicking bells were thought to
forecast death. The ringing of a wine glass was such
a sound, and had to be stopped before its
reverberation ended. Ship’s bells were exempted from
this superstition, because they signaled time and
the changing of watch duties. But if they rang of
their own accord, as in a storm, somebody was going
The tides were thought to have an effect on
death. If someone was gravely ill or wounded, death
would come on ebb tide, as though life were ebbing
A Jonah was a person or a ship or anything that
brought bad luck. The name, of course, originates
from the biblical tale of Jonah, a prophet who was
sent by God to the sinful city of Nineveh to try to
restore order. He chickened out and boarded a ship
headed in the opposite direction. A series of
violent storms attacked the ship, and when the crew
discovered Jonah’s deceit, they threw him overboard
and he was swallowed by a “great fish,” which has
come to mean a whale. The storms abated, and after a
couple of days, the whale regurgitated Jonah and he
was rescued. Having learned his lesson, he
immediately headed for Nineveh to carry out his
A Jonah could be a sailor whose last ship had
bad luck, an unlucky ship, or even an unlucky object
like a black valise. The offending person or object
would be sent off the ship at the first opportunity.
Birds were thought to carry the souls of dead
sailors. Killing a dolphin, a gull, or an albatross
brings bad luck. The albatross story was
immortalized in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient
Mariner,” in which a sailor killed the bird and was
dogged by tragedy and misfortune.
Stepping aboard a ship with your left foot
first, or losing a bucket overboard, or seeing rats
leaving the ship brings bad luck. It is lucky to
have tattoos, to have a black cat on board, to throw
a pair of old shoes overboard, and to have a child
born on the ship (which conflicts with the
prohibitions against women).
The words “drown” and “pig” were bad luck. So
was swearing while fishing. A hatch or a basin
placed upside down represented a sinking ship. And
dropping a hatch into the hold meant even worse
Davey Jones’ Locker was the mariner’s version of
hell where the devil held sway among sunken ships,
souls of dead sailors, and anything that fell
overboard. Davey’s surname is thought to be a
corruption of Jonah. Fiddler’s Green, also located
beneath the sea, was a sailor’s heaven where
winsome, willing wenches danced to merry fiddlers’
tunes while grog and beer flowed freely from
Whistling Up the Wind
Because weather deeply affected ships during the
age of sail, there were more superstitions about
that factor than any other. I discussed some of them
with Al Sorkin, an instructor at the San Diego
maritime museum and an experienced blue water
“Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” That’s probably
the best-known weather prediction rhyme, and it has
some basis in fact. The saying originated in
England, where weather conditions come from the
ocean to the west. If the air is clear, sunset will
be tinted red. In the morning, red light will be
reflected by clouds to the west, which means
moisture in the air and possible storms.
“Rain at seven means fine by eleven.” Rainy days
usually consist of a series of showers, seldom
lasting more than four hours. This is especially
true of heavy rainfall.
A ring around the moon meant rain was coming.
The ring is caused by ice crystals in the upper
atmosphere, and that meant moisture, which could
evolve into rain.
Many other weather superstitions had no factual
basis. Clapping aboard ship was thought to bring
thunder. Umbrellas are for foul weather use, and
bringing one on board was thought to tempt fate.
Throwing stones into the sea caused storms and huge
swells. But a horseshoe nailed to the mast provided
protection from storms. Whistling was supposed to
bring a breeze, so becalmed sailors must have done a
lot of it.
Oil on troubled waters was thought to keep waves
from breaking. To a certain extent it helps, but it
takes a lot more oil than sailing ships carried to
make any difference. They usually made a token
offering of a few drops, along with heartfelt
incantations to the sea gods.
on the Water
Nowhere are there more conflicting maritime
superstitions than with the subject of women on
board. Women weren’t welcomed aboard ship, except in
port when the sailors had been at sea for a long
time. Sometimes passion couldn’t wait for landing,
and affairs were consummated on the gun deck. That’s
supposedly where the term “son of a gun” originated.
A more practical reason for the ban on women is that
they would arouse passions and jealousy. In today’s
U.S. Navy, women serve on every type of ship except
Strange sounds heard at sea were often blamed on
sirens, or mermaids, mythical half-women, half-fish
who sang enchanted songs. The melodies supposedly
lured sailors into treacherous waters where their
ships would be dashed against the rocks.
Ironically, the siren’s song could wreck a ship,
but tradition has it that the sight of a
bare-breasted woman could calm an angry sea. That’s
why so many figureheads of sailing ships were bare
breasted, well-endowed women. Women became the
prevalent figurehead during the 19th century. Before
then it might be the owner of the ship, a war hero,
or an imposing animal like a lion, especially for
warships. The ancient Egyptians painted eyes on the
bow to help the ship find its way. According to
Sorkin, figureheads evolved from that practice.
Ships are always referred to as “she.” The
reason is that they are the sailor’s home and
refuge, sheltering and protecting him from an angry
ocean. Just like mom and mother earth.
Launching and Naming
Ever wonder why a boat is launched by smashing a
bottle of champagne on its bow? The origins of the
tradition go back to the time of the Vikings. When
they launched a longboat, legend has it that they
tied their prisoners to the skids, and the boats
crushed their bodies as they slid into the water.
The Greeks were also said to grease the skids with
blood. Later shipbuilders, a bit less sanguine, tied
red ribbons to the nails on the skids as a
substitute. Wine also stood in for blood in later
days. Because launching a ship was a big deal,
champagne was considered more festive and
A ship’s name ending in the letter “a” is
considered unlucky. This may have originated during
World War I when the Lusitania and the Britannia
were sunk by German torpedoes. However, the U.S.
Navy’s first fleet aircraft carrier, the Saratoga,
served throughout World War II with a distinguished
combat record. It survived kamikaze attacks, and was
the flagship for admirals Chester Nimitz and Bull
Halsey. Even its end was spectacular, as it was sunk
by an atomic bomb during the Bikini tests in 1946.
It was the first aircraft carrier wreck at diveable
depths, and since 1996 has been the star attraction
at Bikini Atoll.
Changing the name of a ship is supposed to be
bad luck. Perhaps the most famous example was Sir
Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance. It was
originally called Aurora, but Shackleton changed it
to honor his family’s motto, “Through endurance we
conquer.” In 1914 he set sail for Antarctica,
intending to trek across the continent. The
Endurance became trapped in the ice and was crushed.
Shackleton and his crew set off across the pack ice
to Elephant Island where they set up camp. They
outfitted a 24-foot lifeboat with a canvas deck and
sails, and with six compatriots, Shackleton made his
epic voyage 600 miles (960 km) across the
treacherous Drake Passage to South Georgia Island. A
rescue ship was finally launched from Chile, and
every member of his crew of 28 came back alive.
When a ship was outfitted, a coin would be
placed under the base of the mast for good luck. If
the mast was ever replaced, an additional coin would
be put there. Coins and gold had a special meaning
to mariners. One of the reasons for wearing gold
earrings was that its owner would never go broke.
(Another was the belief that it would improve a
sailor’s eyesight.) Even if he spent all his money
on a drunken binge, he could buy his way out of
trouble. And if he died in a foreign port, there
would be enough money to take care of funeral
expenses. A similar superstition was prevalent among
landlubbers as well. Gold coins placed on the eyes
of a corpse were used to pay the boatman, Charon,
for the voyage across the River Styx.
The lore of the sea encompasses many centuries
of traditions, rituals, and superstitions. Some of
them seem quaint and amusing in the light of today’s
technology and science. But if you’ve spent lots of
time at sea, you won’t scoff at them. Instead you’ll
respect the history and traditions of those that
showed us the way.