Sailor's superstitions


by Stevie Wonder

Very superstitious, writing on the wall
Very superstitious, ladders bout' to fall
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin' glass 
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past
When you believe in things that you don't understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain't the way

  1. excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural.
    • A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.

I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I don't like to tempt the fates either. It is well known that sailors as a lot have been highly superstitious since taking to the seas over the centuries. Let's look at some of the beliefs and what their roots may have been. 

Bad Luck Omens

Renaming a boat

Boats that are christened develop a certain personality, and it is considered highly unlucky to rename a vessel. If one does rename the vessel, strict procedures must be followed to ensure the favour of the gods. I wrote an article about that on  Of course, it was believed that choosing a name that ends in "a" was bad luck in itself. I didn't know that when we chose the name "Aleria" but as we've been across the Atlantic three times and sailed for a full year, I am hopeful that the gods approved of our name choice and the ceremony we conducted.


A "Jonah" in sailing lore is a person who carries a jinx with bad luck that endangers the ship, based on the biblical story about Jonah. This person could be a sailor or a passenger. The idea of a Jonah aboard was brought up in the movie Master and Commander.

Jonah was commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesize against their citizen's great wickedness. Jonah instead fled by going to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction. A fierce storm arose and the sailors, realizing that it was no ordinary storm, discovered that Jonah was to blame. Jonah suggested that if he was thrown overboard the storm would cease. The sailors tried to dump cargo first but failed to calm the sea. When they threw Jonah overboard, the storm calmed. Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or whale in whose belly he miraculously spent three days and three nights. While in the fish, Jonah prayed to God and committed to what he had vowed to do. God commanded the fish to spew Jonah out, and so a superstition was born. 

Women and clergymen as passengers were considered to bring bad luck although there are many documented cases where the wives of captains sailed with them and even took on navigation duties. The extraordinary story of Mary Patten is one. 

Women on Board

Women aboard vessels as crew were considered bad luck because it was thought the male sailors would become distracted, thus steering away from their original route or putting the ship in harm's way by neglecting their duties. Quite contrary to the otherwise accepted norm, the popular figurehead of a topless lady would appease the ocean gods with its beauty, thereby enabling the vessel to proceed on course without harm. The topless lady represented an offering to "shame nature" into timidity. 

Vikings took women along when they colonized new lands. The menacing appearance of toothy figureheads on Viking ships had the dual protective function of warding off evil spirits and intimidating enemies. Makes more sense to me than naked ladies.

Son of a Gun

Having a child on board was a sign of good luck (if one wasn't too afraid of having a woman on board). Male children born on a ship were referred to as "son of a gun" because the best place to give birth was on the gun deck.

Bananas on board

Having bananas aboard a ship, especially on a private yacht or fishing boat, is considered bad luck, probably because so many ships sank in the Caribbean leaving bananas floating on the water. Perhaps a little of the chicken and egg conundrum. Other considerations are that bananas ripen quickly and ferment producing toxic fumes. They can also harbour insects.

Step aboard 

Stepping aboard with the left foot was considered bad luck so one always had to step aboard with the right foot even if it meant skipping a step. "Step aboard right foot to the fore, to save cursing the barky." Some cruise ships even promote this ritual to this day.

Seeing Ginger

If a sailor met someone with red hair, a clergyman, or someone with cross-eyes on the way to the harbour, he was encouraged not to set sail that day as it was bad luck. However, danger could be averted if the sailor spoke to that person before they spoke to him.

Whistling up a storm

Whistling is usually considered to challenge the wind itself, and that to do so will bring about a storm. Another tale is that it has been considered bad luck ever since the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty; Fletcher Christian is said to have used a whistle as the signal to begin the mutiny against Captain Bligh.

Deadly Lexicon

Certain words must be avoided while at sea to ensure the ship's and crew's safety. These include "drowned" and "goodbye". If someone wishes you "good luck", it is sure to bring about bad luck. The only way to reverse the curse is by drawing blood: a strong punch in the nose or cut with a knife will often do.

Day of departure

Certain days of the week were considered bad luck for setting off. Setting sail on a Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, was bad luck and departing on a Friday the 13th (when the Knights Templar were massacred) was really asking for it. Of course, Friday the 13th has always been a good luck day for me. This superstition still holds true for many cruisers today. Sailors were often reluctant to set sail on Candlemas Day, believing that any voyage begun then would end in disaster. Given the frequency of severe storms in the northern hemisphere in February, this is not entirely without sense. Most wouldn't start a voyage on the first Monday in April, the day that Cain killed Able, or the second Monday in August, the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.. Thursdays are bad sailing days because Thursday is Thor's day, the god of thunder and storms. 

Some sailors believed that the only day to set off on a voyage was Sunday.


Sirens were mythological creatures, portrayed as femmes fatales, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their lands. Don't steer toward the singing when you hear it.


Cutting nails and hair and trimming beards at sea was considered to cause storms, so sailors did not groom while underway.  Think of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Killing a seabird

Seabirds were thought to carry the souls of dead sailors and so it was considered bad luck to kill one. However, it is considered good luck if you see one, particularly an albatross. The name of the ship in the movie White Squall was Albatross. Jeff Bridges mentions that seeing an albatross is good luck, but bad luck if you kill one.

Remember the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? "Instead of the cross, the albatross About my neck was hung."


Sharks in the wake are the sign of an impending death aboard.

Good Luck Charms

Image result for onyx the cruising kitty

Black cats

While in many cultures, a black cat is considered unlucky, British and Irish sailors considered that adopting a black ship's cat would bring good luck. Cats are smart and they eat rodents, which carry disease and can damage stores of grain, ropes and sails. A ship's cat could also create a sense of home for sailors who might be underway for a long time. Ship's cats were treated well and kept happy. 

It was believed to be lucky if a cat approached a sailor on deck, but unlucky if it only came halfway, and then retreated. Cats were even believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Cat's could also predict the weather. If a cat sneezed, rain was on its way. If a cat licked its fur against the grain, a hailstorm could be expected. If a cat became frisky, there would be wind. 

Some sailors believed that polydactyl cats were better at catching pests, and that extra digits made for better balance, which was important at sea. Black and polydactyl was the desired combination.

On the other hand, a contrary belief was that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails. If a ship's cat fell or was thrown overboard, it would summon a fierce storm to sink the ship. If the ship survived the storm, it would be cursed with nine years of bad luck. 

Naturally we sailed with a black magic cat aboard. She has even written a book about her adventures called "Onyx. The Cruising Kitty."


Sailors believed that certain symbols and talismans would attract good luck in the worst of the cases. It was a visual means of expressing their superstitions. At the constant mercy of the elements, sailors often felt the need for religious images tattooed on their bodies to appease the powers that caused drowning far from home. Animals that could not swim were common elements. The belief was that the gods would take mercy on animals that couldn't swim and rescue them from the seas. A compass rose or constellation would help them find their way home. The anchor featured prominently in tattoos, presumably symbolizing a successful voyage or return home.

Spilling wine on deck

The most popular present day maritime ritual, initiated in the 20th century, is having a notable godmother say a blessing and smash a bottle of champagne across a new ship's bow. The tradition dates to ancient times when wine was used and men did the duties.  But it was also traditional to spill wine on deck before every long voyage. Perhaps, it is thought, spilling the wine was used to check for cracks in the hull. 

It is also useful to spill wine overboard at your ship's sail away party as it is considered an offering to the gods and brings good luck.


A favorite maritime tradition is a ceremony for sailors who cross the equator for the first time. Originally a hazing ritual, Pollywogs (newbies) are summoned by King Neptune and his court (usually male crew dressed as women) and ordered to do things such as crawl, kiss a fish, or jump into the pool before being able to claim status as experienced Shellbacks. According to tradition, Neptune also doesn't mind an occasional shot of rum.


A pierced earlobe meant that a sailor had sailed around the world or had crossed the equator. Sailors wore gold hoop earrings because they believed it brought good fortune. Some believed that the gold possessed magic healing powers or that it served as a protective talisman that would prevent the wearer from drowning. 


If dolphins follow your ship, it's a sign of good luck.

A German Conundrum

A Klabautermann is a water sprite (or shapeshifting water spirit) that assists sailors and fishermen working on the Baltic and North Seas in their duties. It was originally a jolly and diligent creature, with an expertise in most watercraft and an extraordinary musical talent. It was believed to rescue sailors who had fallen overboard. 

Despite the positive attributes, there was an omen associated with Klabautermann's presence: he only ever became visible to the crew of a doomed ship. More recently, the Klabautermann started being blamed for things that went wrong on the ship. This incarnation of the Klabautermann was described as having more sinister attributes and being more demon-like. He was prone to playing pranks, eventually dooming the ship and her crew. 

So, a bit of good luck and a bit of bad in one spirit. So be it. 

Are you superstitious?

A Klabautermann on a ship, from  Zur See, 1885.
 Originally uploaded by German Wikipedia user: Seebeer - The original source is given as "Zur See, von Henk Verlagsanstalt und Druckerei, Hamburg, 1885"., Public Domain,


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