Superstition at Sea

Friday the 13th is on its way. Will you be sailing out of Sutton Harbour? Maybe you will take precautions - after all, sailors always have been - and still are - superstitious creatures. 

It’s understandable really; drowning, sickness and violence were never far from the lives of seafarers, and any way they could find to make disaster less likely was grabbed with both hands! We thought we would take a little look at why they were alway historically in need of some physical reassurance - or even ‘insurance’.

It wasn’t just calamity that could be a problem; so was too much wind was, too little wind was as well - and being becalmed meant delays and difficulties. 

The boats themselves were prone to leaks and damage, and certainly weren’t maintained as well as craft in use today. The MAYFLOWER and SPEEDWELL put into Plymouth (and several other places) in 1620 en route to North America exactly because of this – and the Speedwell was left behind because she leaked so badly. Those settlers were to endure a rough crossing and an even rougher winter, which would see half their number die from illness and starvation – but they had their faith firmly in God. It’s a fair bet that the ship’s crew had some older versions of faith and belief to rely on!

Today mariners will still follow tradition - and even if they won’t admit it, there’s still superstition involved. A new sailing vessel is still likely to have a coin placed at the foot of the mast as it is stepped into place, and a blessing of champagne broken across the bow is still used of course! And what are prayers for ‘all who sail in her’ if they are not a form of superstition?

Travel to the Mediterranean countries and look around the ports crammed with small fishing boats, and most will have the ‘All Seeing Eye’ painted on the sides of the bow. This is an ancient device, and certainly the Egyptians of the times of the Pharaohs would recognise it, perhaps as the Eye of Horus. This was – and still is – believed to guide the boat through for and darkness, and of course toward the fish! In the gift shops ashore you will see many representations of the same thing, often on key rings, made of blue and white glass.

Sailors always felt that it was best to offer a little payment to the mysterious spirits of wind and waves, and as coins came into use it was common for a gold coin to be put into the socket underneath a mast when a ship was built. The sail training ship Sir Winston Churchill was launched in 1966 with Churchill Crowns under her masts.

Fishermen, using cork floats for their nets, would also make a slit and insert a coin in the pocket. If, when they hauled their catch aboard, the coin had gone, then it was taken as meaning that due payment had been claimed by the spirits. One hopes a good catch of fish was the reward!

Other superstitions surrounded the building of boats; horseshoes are always lucky, and it was a good idea to drive the first nail of a build within the iron curve of the shoe. Red threads or ribbons make a good charm and so a thread tied around that first nail was also a good idea. Keels should not be laid on a Thursday – Thor’s Day – because he was the bringer of storms. 

Wind is of course the friend and the enemy of the sailor. Whistling can bring too much of it, so is generally frowned upon at sea, unless becalmed. Fixing the tail of a shark or porpoise aloft can bring favour. 

Another way of obtaining a controlled amount of wind was to ‘buy’ it; a wise woman or man ashore would take some rope and on a windy day tie knots in it to ‘catch’ the breeze. A sailor would then buy the length of rope, and if short of wind at sea would untie a knot to release the wind. Whether it worked is debatable, but it’s a lovely idea!

There are countless other tales of superstition around boats and the sea; many are bound into more modern faiths and beliefs. Jesus chose Fishermen as his disciples; St Andrew is the Patron Saint of sailors and rope makers; we sing and pray for ‘those in peril on the sea’ – one of the most poignant of hymns. Queen Elizabeth’s comment upon the defeat of the Armada that ‘God blew his winds and they were scattered’ reflects the belief in Divine intervention, and we wish a sailor ‘Godspeed’ to their return. 

How many tales have you encountered?