Fishing Folklore and Seafaring Superstitions

3rd March 2017

Why it’s unlucky to set sail on a Friday, what words can’t be uttered on board and why cats are important.

Every profession has their superstitions, traditional customs and strange beliefs but mariners (and specifically fishermen) have more than their fair share. Most are associated with bad luck and are portentous of ominous weather, tragedy or poor fishing. From the notion of women on board being a distraction to whistling on the bridge inciting a storm there are dozens of ways in which misfortune can be wrought upon a vessel or voyage…if you believe in this kind of thing.

Strange as it may seem but, actually, a lot of these customs are still observed even in the modern-day marine age. Of course, most sailors and seamen today know that these beliefs are all bogus but they can still pervade the daily lives of those who take to the sea. Whether these myths are a romanticised hangover from another era or based in some foundation of fact, we take a look at the history of some traditional folklore that still exists today.

Unlucky friday

Friday is considered an unlucky in many walks of life and remains prevalent even in today’s modern seafaring world. Though most commercial vessels wouldn’t delay a voyage that was due to start on a Friday, there are still plenty of fishermen who prefer to stay on dry land at the end of a week

The belief is thought to be linked to the fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday and voyages destined to leave for sea would have an unlucky voyage. In the same vein, Sunday’s are a good day to set sail as Jesus was resurrected on the Sabbath.

Forbidden words

Just like the theatre, certain words have been known to be banned on board any vessel. From the early days of shipping, wishing anyone ‘good luck’ or merely saying ‘goodbye’ were thought to bring misfortune on the crew.

Speaking of goodbyes, it was considered bad luck to watch a vessel until it was out of sight as all who were on board would be drowned; which is another one for the banned list. The word ‘drowned’ was also thought to have been forbidden for fear of tempting fate.

If the words ‘good luck’ were uttered on board a boat, then the only way to reverse the ‘curse’ upon the crew was to punch someone (usually the person who’d said it) and draw blood!

The significance of cats and the sea

The humble cat has links to many superstitions and probably dates back to Ancient Egyptian times when cats were revered creatures. As the species were domesticated across Europe they became the unofficial guardians of the home; this association with security and safety is the origin of most superstitions relating to cats.

In the nautical world, cats feature quite a lot and particularly with fishermen. Any fishermen heading off to sea would be only too pleased to attract the attention of a cat; one that purrs before a launch is said to bring a bountiful haul as will one that rubs itself against the ankles of the crew. The reasoning being a sound one; that cats can smell the fish a mile away.

The infamous black cat was thought to be a good omen if it ventured on board a vessel of its own free will. However, the cat that licks its fur the wrong way has been blamed for causing storms.

The association between the sea and cats can also be found in the way sailors refer to the water with ‘cat’s paws’ being a term for the small ripples on the ocean’s surface and ‘cat’s skin’ referring to a big disturbance in the sea.

Why the big hoo-ha when we name a vessel?

Naming a ship even today is a big deal and often has something of the ceremonial about it, even if it isn’t the QE2. The tradition of blessing a ship to bestow good luck upon all who sail in it goes back thousands of years. Evidence has shown that the Babylonians in around 3000 BC were performing naming rites on their vessels and even sacrificing cattle as part of the ceremony. The Vikings continued in this vein with the spilling of blood as an offering to the Norse Gods. Though the blood has been replaced by wine (or a bottle of Champagne) we still perform celebratory rites when christening a vessel today. A part of the cultural tradition demands that a woman performs the baptism as a way of ensuring prosperity and good luck for the vessel.

Why having women on board was thought to bring bad luck

Given the fact that a woman’s touch was deemed to be good luck during a naming ceremony for a boat, why, then, was having a woman on board considered to be bad luck?

Sadly, there’s no fantastical yarn about this one; it’s simply a case of distraction. Until recent times, the marine industry was a male dominated one and a crew of men at sea would no doubt have been driven to distraction by the presence of a female among their ranks. That’s not to say that it never happened; the infamous Mary-Ann Talbot served alongside her guardian, Captain Bowen, as a drummer, concealed in men’s clothing in the late eighteenth century. After Bowen was killed in battle, Talbot worked on board several vessels without incident. There are of course many tales of successful female pirates throughout history, including Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew.

Interestingly, the enduringly charming curse, ‘son of a gun’ is derived from the activities of sailors who failed to stay focused on their activities. The practice of consummating an affair on board was often done so on the gun deck, sometimes resulting in a child born out of wedlock; a son of a gun. And it wasn’t just females of our own species that were purported to have a distracting effect on history’s mariners; mermaids were also renowned to lure vulnerable sailors to their doom.

Quite contrarily, seafaring folk believed that nude women were actually a calming influence on the sea which is why so many figureheads on old sailing ships are of a naked woman!

Ways to increase your catch

Customs and traditions pervaded all areas of sea life and things like dropping a cake of ice overboard would ensure a big catch. Spitting into the mouth of the first fish you catch was also believed to improve the haul of the day. But speaking of spitting, it was generally held to be true that letting the skipper spit into the water ahead of him would drive the fish away.

No bananas on board

Weird as it may sound, bananas were thought to be terrible bad luck for a vessel. The superstition resulted from observations that those vessels carrying bananas as cargo befell some strange and unusual fates. Some ships simply disappeared whilst others suffered outbreaks of mysterious illnesses among the crew resulting in sickness and sometimes death.

There is evidence to suggest that the rapidly decaying fruit which gives off ethylene oxide could have accounted for this. Another theory is that the bunches of exotic fruit bound from South America and the West Indies to Europe could have contained poisonous spiders. Whatever the cause and whether it was associated with just those ships carrying bananas is irrelevant, the fruit quickly became a bad omen to have on board.

Ways to influence the weather

The popular phrase, ‘whistling up a storm’, derived from the commonly held belief that whistling whilst on the bridge would result in the onset of strong winds. Clapping too could also be blamed for inciting lighting and thunder whilst throwing a penny overboard would bring a favourable wind.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the history of these nautical myths and superstitions, then don’t forget to share this link. For further reading, check out Don’t Shoot The Albatross by Jonathan Eyers; a humorous compendium of the odd rituals and omens that set the salty seadogs apart from the landlubbers.

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