No bunnies or redheads allowed!!

No bunnies or redheads allowed!!

Those who work and play on the sea generally are generally superstitious to some degree. Which is understandable, since the sea offers plenty of opportunities for turns of bad luck. Fishing boats run aground or become lost. Mechanical failures result in boats floating helplessly adrift – or worse, being wrecked. Crew become deathly ill from mysterious illnesses. Bad weather sweeps in. All of these have been, at various times, attributed to bad luck. We humans have created little rituals, or a system of convictions, that we feel will keep us safe. What is interesting to ponder is the origins of these behaviours, as most of the superstitions anglers have today evolved from complex beliefs that extended beyond fishing and began hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. Whilst hanging with some of the anglers in Sodwana, the subject came up – which I thought would make for an interesting column. The origins of these superstitions are many and varied, some more believable than others, and obviously largely based on hearsay. Some taboos have very practical purposes (like the rabbits), others have no logic at all (like redheads). Enjoy the read!!

Stop with green.

The colour green colour is generally assumed to be highly unlucky in the boating world. The origins of this superstition are varied and interesting. One version refers to the green colour of mould which could damage the wood of ancient sailing ships, increasing the chances of their demise. A second relates to the fact that green is the colour of grass and land, increasing the chances of the boat running aground. On a less palatable note, yet another version relates to the typical blue-green colour of naval officers’ corpses. Back in the day, if they died during long crossings, they were released to their families only at the end of the journey – by which time the bodies were less than ‘fresh’… 

No umbrellas.

Because umbrellas are used in bad weather, it is seen as tempting fate to bring one on board.

Do NOT whistle whilst you work.

Whistling on board is generally believed to raise storms. According to various sources, whistling is an act of arrogance from the sailor, a means to challenge the wind or even call the fury of the devil. There was one exception to this rule. In the days of sail, the cook was encouraged to whistle! It was believed that if the cook was whistling, he was not able to steal food from the rest of the crew.

There is also a more historical explanation, originating from the famous mutiny of Captain Bligh. In 1879, on the HMS Bounty, the crew mutinied after the signal (believed to have been a whistle) was used to launch the attack on Captain William Bligh. He and those loyal to him were set adrift, finally reaching the island of Timor, in the southern end of Southeast Asia, more than 3600 nautical miles later!

No bunnies on boats!

This superstition dates back to the time when live animals were brought on board to have fresh food for the long journeys. Rabbits, however, appeared to have a fondness for attacking the wood and cordage of boats, causing serious damage. Even using the word “rabbit” on a boat is considered extremely bad luck – particularly amongst the French.

Born with a name, die with that name…

You may NEVER change the name of a boat. Boats, in fact, are believed to have a soul and their names are written on the Gods of the Sea’s Book, better known as the “Book of Depths”, which is taken care of by Poseidon, the absolute God of Sea. Changing the name of a boat without notifying him is a serious act of defiance which was thought to expose sailors to some terrible punishments. There are some elaborate ceremonies which theoretically allow one to change the name, but few would risk it.

Bananas are banned.

That includes fresh or dried chips of banana, banana muffins, plus anything banana flavoured, any items bearing the word “banana” or anything even evocative of it, such as Banana Republic apparel, or Banana Boat sunscreen. Bananas stored aboard ancient ships fermented and gave off Ethylene gas, which would be trapped below deck. Exposure to Ethylene can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, light-headedness, confusion and even unconsciousness. It is also a highly flammable and reactive chemical, an explosion hazard. The more inane explanation could simply be that banana peels cause crew members to slip and fall on deck. Often, a bunch of bananas would also hide snakes, spiders or other insects that have been noted to have bitten and sometimes killed members of the crew. So definitely no bananas…

A woman aboard is trouble.

Ships were usually given female names. In English, the word “ship” is feminine, and ships of the same series are called sisterships. Sailors believed that Poseidon, as a famous womanizer, would be favourable to a ship with a female name. So, the ship itself is effectively a feminine entity. Which is why a real woman has no place on a ship because it will be jealous of the rival and will no longer obey the captain. Amazingly, in many countries including Denmark, France and England, this superstition became the law for a period of time! A more pragmatic approach to the superstition relates to peace on the boat. Traveling by sea meant long periods of isolation from the rest of the world. The presence of a woman on board could lead to quarrels, fights, and the inevitable loss of concentration by men of the crew. That is why the ban was supported not only by superstitious pirates but also by educated captains. Fortunately, this superstition has sunk into oblivion.

In contrast to this superstition, a woman without any clothes was thought to shame the seas into submission, forcing nature to suppress its anger. Naked women on the boat were considered good luck for this reason (although I’m willing to bet there were other reasons the sailors thought this was a stroke of good luck!). Sailing vessels commonly sported a woman with bare breasts as a figurehead on the bow. Her eyes would need to be facing forward as it was thought that she would help guide the sailors home.

In the early years of nautical navigation, there was much fear (specifically in Europe) that suggested women who wished to work at sea were in fact, witches. With their deep belief in curses, omens, good luck and bad luck, the sailors would often abide by superstitions in order to escape potential doom. Thus began the superstition that a woman was not allowed on the boat, despite them generally being notoriously good navigators at sea.

And never, ever a Redhead!

Many cultures over the centuries believed redheads were unlucky, so this might be why sailors shunned them. If a sailor was due to set sail and saw a redhead, he’d need to speak to them before being spoken to. This way the redhead had encountered the sailor and not the other way around. Another potential origin of this superstition is that redheads are considered fiery personalities – which could obviously cause issues onboard.

Put your best foot forward.

With its origins traceable to the ancient sailing era, the commonly known sayings, “get off on the right foot” or “put your best foot forward” were used in days past as a requirement for sailors as they boarded the vessel. In history, and in many cultures, it was considered to be bad luck if a person was left-handed. Therefore, upon boarding a vessel, it was believed in turn, bad luck if the person stepped aboard with their left foot. 

There are many, many more superstitions. For example, sailors have long believed that seeing an albatross at sea can bring good luck.  The albatross was, however, associated with carrying the souls of dead sailors. So, killing an albatross would certainly bring bad luck – by invoking the fury of the sea. We have reached the end of our wordcount for this week, but it is a worthy subject to research if it interests you…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

Share this post

Start typing and press Enter to search

Shopping Cart