Friday the 13th, is a day laced with Superstition. Although there is no exact origin, the number thirteen and Fridays have always had an air of bad luck attached to them. Over time we’ve gone out of our way to avoid “bad luck” situations or created rituals to protect us from them. Sailing dates to before modern humans, to a time when the outcome of a voyage was believed to be dependent on the mood of Gods or sorcery. Superstition and sailing went hand in hand, even today we still cling to some of the traditions more ceremonial in nature but are now deeply rooted in sailing culture.
Let’s start this with the people you want to avoid and the ones you don’t want on the boat. No Women Allowed. This one is probably the most obvious. A woman on board, all that beauty, all that grace, all that… temptation. Simply put, they were a distraction for the crew. A distracted crew was dangerous, a distracted crew would anger the ocean and bring forth bad weather. The only time a woman was accepted on board was if she was carrying a male child. Having a male child born, while at sea was good luck. Avoid the gingers. An encounter with a red-headed person before a voyage spelled certain doom. Red-haired people have a history of being bad luck in many cultures. There are no definitive answers on the origin of this one, some believe it was the idea that a redhead was less common than blondes and brunettes. Others feel that it is due to the color being bad luck due to its association with temptation and of course, the Devil. The remedy, be the first to chat up a redhead before they have the chance to talk to you. Avoid a red-headed woman at all costs.
Don’t think about setting sail on these days. No, Friday the 13th isn’t one specifically, but certain days of the week are just bad luck when you are ready to embark. Planning to set sail on Thursday? Think again, Thursday, or “Thor’s” Day, is the Day for Thor, the God of Thunder. The fear of bad weather prevented sailors from leaving on this day. “That’s fine, we’ll just leave tomorrow.” Nope, Friday, was just as unlucky. Friday was the day Jesus was crucified. Most sailors preferred to begin their journeys Sunday, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. This led to the adage, ‘Sunday Sail, Never Fail’.
Seems like a lot to avoid just to leave port. All the bad luck doesn’t just stop when you finally board. Even the foot you used to step on board would determine the course of your trip. Sailors would always step on a boat with their right foot first, the left was unlucky. “Step aboard right foot to the fore, to save cursing the barky.” Pay your debts. A seaman who hadn’t taken care of his debts before leaving would bring terrible weather and other misfortunes. Gives new meaning to “drowning in debt”. Pay the toll. One way to get luck on your side was to pay “Neptune’s Toll”. It was in the boat’s best interest to throw a few coins into the ocean when leaving port. This “toll” would appease Neptune, the God of the Sea, ensuring a safe voyage and safe return.
Sailing life wasn’t for everyone, especially for the well-groomed. Sailing was hard work. Long cold and wet hours. Between always tending to maintenance and repairs, swabbing the deck, and managing the rigging, sailors were constantly on call. Now throw in tight quarters for sleeping, a terrible diet, and one could feel that their humanity is slowly slipping away. A simple shave and haircut could be that one thing that you need to snap back, you feel good about yourself, you look like your pre-voyage self, you just damned the entire crew! Personal grooming, cutting your hair, shaving, and cutting your nails, while underway was believed to bring the wrath of Neptune. Neptune considered your clippings as an offering to the Roman Goddess Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Sailors wanted Neptune on their side, he brought good luck and safe passage. No offerings should be made to another God while under Neptune’s watch!
Although some of these superstitions seem outright ridiculous, we must remember when many of these made their way into boat culture. A time with no electronic instrumentation, or weather forecasts to chart our course. Simple things like Bimini Tops and Outboard covers, to protect ourselves and boating accessories from the elements, we take for granted nowadays. But I’m sure there are still a few of us out there who have that one thing we do every time we board our boats, a habit whose origin stems from these customs, only giving merit to our sailing forefathers’ “ridiculous” beliefs.
Think that’s it? We’ve only just scratched the surface of Maritime Superstitions. From witches, bananas, and cats, there are plenty more superstitions to get your fix. Be on the lookout for Part 2!