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Sailing Superstitions

Wednesday October 22, 2014


As we embark on our next journey from Madeira to the Canary Islands, I’d like to take a moment to talk about sailing superstitions. Let us not forget our last journey to get where we are from Sao Miguel Azores. I swear we did everything right and still had what I consider our worst overall passage to date. Maybe there was something out there I missed and need to pay closer attention to?

Most of the superstitions in the maritime world have been around quite awhile, and based on technology for the modern day seafarer versus our gadget-less ancestors, I can see why. Matt and I often joke that we would not be able to take this kind of trip if technology was even 30 years behind where it is today. Without our satellite phone, electronic navigation and charts, weather fax and even decent VHF radio signals, we would be completely lost. Celestial navigation? Hah, yeah right. Taking a position with a sextant? Nope. Basing our entrance to a tricky harbor on lining up with a building as a guide post that may not even be there anymore? No thanks.

We’ll be the first to admit that we heavily rely on all the tech that’s offered to us today, but it’s easy to see why the mariner’s of yesteryear based a lot of it on fate and superstitions. If I thought that keeping flowers off the boat or speaking to a red head before they spoke to me would give me any kind of control over the situation or guarantee me a good passage, I’d probably do them too. 

I think this quote on an article on Seafaring Superstitions sums up this theory perfectly.

You are a 19th Century mariner, living in the dank, dark quarters of a sailing ship, at the mercy of capricious wind and weather, six weeks from your last sighting of land. There is no marine weather forecast, no radio, no satellite communication; in fact no communication with the world as you knew it for periods ranging from months to years. You are virtually isolated from the rest of humanity. The captain is the absolute dictator; the ship is his kingdom. You and the rest of the crew are serfs. Small wonder you grasp at any support you can, whether real or imaginary.

LOOK Insurance is amassing the largest compilation of superstitions and when you read more they can find aasking us to give our personal list of what we follow to avoid toil and trouble on the water. So here I will break into two sections, popular superstitions that we follow for particular reasons, and also little ones I’ve made up myself.


Well Known Superstitions

Never Leave for a Passage on a Friday

If we ever follow one superstition, this one would be it. This is supposed to be incredibly bad luck, and we’d probably laugh it off if not for all of our modern day fellow sailors I’ve read about that have done just this and encountered the worst storms they’ve ever seen or major damage to their vessel in one way or another. None of these sound worth tempting fate for, and even if we see that a weather window will give us a perfect opportunity to leave on a Friday, we won’t do it. We may try and find a sneaky way around it by leaving at 11:50 pm on a Thursday night, but never ever will will leave on a Friday for any jaunt of more than 100 miles. The first time we encountered this, before even really hearing about the superstition, was our first overnight trip on Serendipity, traveling across Lake Michigan from Muskegon to Milwaukee. Storms of epic proportions, especially for beginner sailors, dodging boats in the Chicago to Mac race, and total sleep deprivation.

We thought we could counteract this superstition, or at least worry about it on someone else’s boat, when we tried to join our friend Luis on his motor vessel last summer for a trip from Guatemala to the Bay Islands of Honduras, leaving on a Friday morning. The trip turned out to be ill fated from the beginning and was aborted before anything could really go wrong. So it stands, never leave for passage on a Friday.

This is an incredibly old superstition with religious background since it was written in the bible that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Other bad days to leave on due to religious affiliation are: December 31st (the day Judas hung himself), the first Monday in April (when Cain slew Able), and the second Monday in August (when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed). Huh. Who knew?

Don’t spit in the Ocean

Spitting in anyone’s face is just plain disrespectful, and Neptune is no exception. Not that we’re the kind of slack jawed yokels that can’t keep our drool in our mouth, we very rarely have any reason to spit, but on the occasions that we do, we keep it in the sink while on passage. While in harbor though is a completely different story, I trust our anchor to keep us safe even though some pretty nasty storms have been thrown at it, and I say ‘Spit away’. Just don’t ever ask me to take that chance while underway. Let’s face it, the ocean, although calm and soothing at times, can also be one crazy biotch. We’ve been back and forth at each others throats sometimes and although I consider us frenemies I’d like to stay on her good side here for the next couple of months, so don’t tell her I’m calling her names behind her back.

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Think these guys are superstitious about their races?

My Personal Made-up Superstitions

Do not trim your hair or nails while at sea

This is supposed to anger Neptune, although I have no idea why. I’d actually never heard this was a known superstition until now, although the funny thing is, I’ve already found it incredibly true. Without even knowing that this act was supposed to bring storms with it, I swear I’ve learned through my own practice that it will in fact do just that. I’m not exaggerating, every time we’ve had a storm while on passage I most likely trimmed or bit my nails the previous day. After noticing this trend on previous sails in the Caribbean I purposely tried it on our Atlantic crossing, and guess what?, we got a storm the next day. I will no longer even think of touching my nails now while on passage. In fact, I’ll actually freak out if I break a nail on accident. I’ve also found out that giving myself a pedicure within a few days of a passage brings storms. Truth is, I’ve noticed that the longer I go without putting pretty little colors on my piggies, the nicer our passages have been. So my nails will now be polish free until we reach the Caribbean.

Use Blistex lip balm for more wind and Carmex for less wind

Do you know where I got this one from? Yup, our Atlantic crossing. I’m not even sure what day into our crossing during my sleep deprived state that I was able to catch on to this little trick, and even if it’s just in my head, I promise it’s worked for me. The days we were in dead calms with barely 5 knots behind us carrying us along, if I put on my favorite Bistex lip balm the wind would pick up a little bit. Now maybe this meant just up to 8 knots where it wasn’t doing us a whole heck of a lot of good, but it was still something. Then on one day when we had one of our rare storms and I couldn’t find my Bistex, I turned to my Carmax instead. I’m not even joking, within an hour the winds died down at least 5-10 knots, which in my book is still soothing when you’re getting cannonballs of water exploding against your hull. I tried this trick again on our sail from the Azores to Madeira, and just and promised, if the winds threatened to stay above 30 I’d just swipe on my Carmex and they’d calm right down to mid 20’s.

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I’ve had a lot of fun writing this post, and in searching for a little more background on some of these maritime superstitions, I came across this quote:

Animals including particular birds were thought to bestow either bad or

good fortune. Swallows seen at sea signified good luck while curlews and

cormorants were bad luck. And killing a gull, dolphin or albatross was especially

troubling as these creatures were believed to hold the soul of deceased sailors.

All I want to know is….why would you kill any of these animals? Why??!! I hope that it is bad luck to kill a dolphin, you deserve to have your soul stolen if you do.

On another animal side note, who knew that black cats bring good luck at sea? Since Georgie is partially black, I wonder if she brings us partial good luck.

What sailing superstitions do you follow or have your made up? I’d also be curious to know, what ones do you blatantly disregard, and why?

Once you’ve thought of your answer, head over to LOOK Insurance and take their boating superstition survey!

racing on Muskegon Lake

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