5 Boating Superstitions that Give Skippers the Chills
Since the beginning of (mari)time, sailors have developed superstitions that skippers continue to pass down from generation to generation of boaters. Sure, some people think boating superstitions are silly, but… others take these warnings seriously.
No matter whether you’re setting a course on a boat rental or heading out as a guest aboard a friend’s vessel, here are five boating superstitions to keep top of mind (because you never know):
- Bananas are bad luck on board
- Changing a boat’s name is bad luck
- Dolphins are good luck
- Whistling can bring storms
- Certain tattoos bring good luck while out at sea
1. Bananas are bad luck on board
Boaters can argue for days about the origin of the superstition that it’s bad luck to have bananas on board. Some say it’s because, back in the era of wooden sailing ships suffering horrible sinkings, bananas would often be found floating amid the wreckage.
Others say it’s because sailors pushing their speed to make landfall before cargo loads of spoiled bananas would have trouble trolling for (or catching) fish. Still, others claim the superstition originated with the spiders and other creepy crawlies that used to make their way onto boats by hitching a ride on various kinds of fruit, including bananas.
No matter the origin story, the reality today is that some skippers — especially fishermen — will not tolerate any type of bananas on board. They’ll toss not just the fresh-picked kind but also banana chips, banana bread, and even sunscreens with the word “banana”!
So, on boating days, get your potassium from avocados or spinach instead. Leave the bananas behind with the hopes of having smooth sailing ahead.
2. Changing a boat’s name is bad luck
Whenever a boat is christened, Poseidon enters its name into a ledger, to keep track of all the boats on the sea. If you later try to change the boat’s name, it can be taken as an attempt to fool the gods somehow, thus angering them and bringing their wrath down upon your boat’s decks.
This superstition can sometimes bump up hard against the reality of buying a boat with a name like Stiff Ripples, Berth Control, or Wet Dream emblazoned on the nameplate and transom. Of course, you’ll want to change it, but in a way that keeps Poseidon happy.
This involves a couple of steps. First, you must remove all traces of the boat’s previous name. Think hard about everywhere it might appear, from logbooks to dock mats to registered EPIRBs. Get rid of it all so that it’s as if the previous boat name never existed.
Then, you must perform a purging ceremony. You have to address The Man himself by gathering on the bow with your family and friends and then saying:
“Oh mighty and great ruler of the seas and oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, I implore you in your graciousness to expunge for all time from your records and recollection the name Stiff Ripples (or Berth Control, or Wet Dream, or your own boat’s old name), which has ceased to be an entity in your kingdom. As proof thereof, we submit this ingot bearing her name to be corrupted through your powers and forever be purged from the sea.”
At that point, you must perform a physical ritual to purge the old name from Poseidon’s ledger. Write the boat’s old name in water-soluble ink on a metal tag, and then drop the tag into the water. After that, you can crack open the champagne. Give this toast:
“In grateful acknowledgment of your munificence and dispensation, we offer these libations to your majesty and your court.” Pour some champagne into the water, and then share the rest with your family and friends.
Finally, you’re ready to rechristen your boat— and to make sure Poseidon writes your new boat name in his books. Say this:
“Oh mighty and great ruler of the seas and oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, I implore you in your graciousness to take unto your records and recollection this worthy vessel hereafter and for all time known as Serendipity (or Aquasition, or Carpe Diem, or whatever you name your new boat), guarding her with your mighty arm and trident and ensuring her of safe and rapid passage throughout her journeys within your realm.”
Then, pour a little more champagne into the sea, and save the last of it for a toast between the skipper and mate. At this point, you should be cool with the gods, so you can start bringing things aboard with the new boat’s name.
3. Dolphins are good luck
Not all superstitions are bad. Some are downright fun— such as the one that says if dolphins are swimming alongside your boat, you will have good luck, fair weather, and smooth seas.
It’s not just boaters who think dolphins are a good-luck charm. Civilizations dating back centuries have considered it good luck to spot a dolphin. These animals are beautiful, smart helpers and symbolize hope and guidance. So, a dolphin paying you a visit is considered a good omen in many places worldwide.
Just be mindful of marine life sightseeing rules, like keeping the boat at least 50 yards from any dolphins you see. If the dolphins come to you and swim in your boat’s wake, that’s fine, but if the dolphins are minding their own business as you approach, maintain a safe distance from them.
4. Whistling can bring storms
Just like you don’t want to anger Poseidon, you also don’t want to anger the wind. The blow is apparently pretty touchy, too. Some sailors believe whistling on a boat is a way to rile up the wind, making it stronger and encouraging storms.
Then again, some sailors believe this whistling superstition only holds true if it’s a woman doing the whistling on board. Of course, some sailors also believe that having women on board at all is bad luck unto itself, so the fact that the women are whistling would be an ancillary insult to the gods. Hard to say what the punishment for that might be.
There are also people who believe that whistling in public is simply poor etiquette because it annoys other people. Some people think it’s OK to whistle a tune in public but never to whistle as a way to get another person’s attention.
To stay on the safe side of this superstition at sea, it’s best to keep the whistling to a minimum.
5. Certain tattoos are good luck at sea
There’s a belief in some at-sea circles that you need two tattoos — one a rooster and the other a pig — to keep you from drowning during a shipwreck.
Why a rooster and a pig? Because when ships went down, and these animals were on board in crates, the crates sometimes floated, meaning the animals made it back to shore alive even if all the humans perished.
Thus, this livestock superstition was born. There’s no standard-looking version of these tattoos. Sailors would get them in all kinds of styles and colors.
But, generally speaking, the rooster goes on the right foot and the pig goes on the left foot, with both tattoos on the tops of the feet. Some sailors also add the words “tread water” with five letters on each foot, one above each toe.
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Kim Kavin has been on boats in more than 50 countries and islands, including in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. She grew up learning to steer a ski boat and Hobie Holder at her grandfather’s lake house in New Jersey, and went on to spend time aboard everything from America’s Cup racing sailboats to submarines.
Kim is a PADI-certified scuba diver and animal lover who always enjoys a good, long look around a coral reef. Her award-winning writing and editing regularly appears in national marine magazines and on leading websites. In her early years, she was a Dow Jones editing intern and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. When she’s not writing, Kim can usually be found hiking northwest New Jersey’s beautiful park trails with her adopted shelter mutt, Ginger.