For centuries people have been taking to the sea for food, for a living, and for the sheer love of exploration, and so sailors and mariners have long been a distinct class of people. Over the years, a significant body of lore has built up, some knowledge of which is important to anyone who truly wants to understand their experiences they have on the water and how they have arrived at that point.
Sailors’ lore covered many areas of life aboard the ship and at sea, and the amount of it that exists is almost beyond counting. What has been chosen for inclusion in this article covers specific actions that a sailor should or should not do, depending on the custom. Below are some of these unwritten rules that sailors were expected to follow, with some background information so green hands (the term for a new sailor) can understand where they come from and what they really mean.
Like many other peoples across time, the “left” side of anything had sinister associations. Stepping on your boat with your left foot first was thought to bring bad luck to a voyage.
In many cultures, cats have an association with bad luck. Not so with sailors. Having cats on board a ship was a sign of good luck, most likely because they were excellent pets and also helped to keep pests on the boat to a minimum. Even Shackleton, the Artic explorer, took a cat with him all the way to the Pole, and though his voyage may have failed, all of his men survived.
You have no doubt seen pictures of pirates with gold earrings in their ears — this is not merely an invention of illustrators or fanciful writers. Pirates (and sailors) believed that if you pierced an ear, your sight in the opposite eye would improve. Many sailors had their ears pierced to improve their ability to keep watch and to spot whales or other ships and even today some sailors will have their ears pierced for this very reason.
The fate of the ancient mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of condemnation after killing an albatross. The reason that he was condemned for this act was because many mariners believed that the spirits of dead sailors lived on in the birds, so to harm them was to hurt a sailor. If you see land-dwelling birds such as pigeons at sea, however, this is a sign of bad luck to come.
If you ever find yourself becalmed at sea, try tossing a coin into the water. According to sailors’ lore, the wind could be bought in times of need by paying the ocean for it. In addition, whistling was thought to be able to bring the wind. Be careful with whistling, however. It may be able to bring up the wind, but it has also been known to call up storms, according to legend.
You may have heard the rhyme, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight / Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” This is one of many warnings or rhymes that have to do with predicting weather, one of the most important aspects of any mariner’s life — past or present.
After the disappearance of many trading ships with a cargo of bananas back in the eighteenth century, bananas became a sign of bad luck. This may also be because ships carrying bananas had to travel very quickly to keep them from rotting, which placed a heavy inconvenience on the sailors and prevented them from fishing or having much leisure time.
Naturally, this is something that you should be doing all of the time, but there is a particular importance if you are going to be sailing. Debtors, because of their unfinished business, were thought to bring storms down on the boat, and were therefore blamed for bad weather.
There are also some beliefs and customs that, though interesting, are truly outmoded and sometimes dangerous:
This may seem strange, even cruel, at first. But sailors believed that if someone was saved from drowning, the ocean — sometimes embodied as Neptune or another god of the sea — would seek that person out until it swallowed them. If the sea came after a crewmate of theirs that had been purposefully saved from drowning, it could sink a whole ship, killing all aboard.
Or really anyone with any sort of physical difference. People with these qualities were seen as bad luck, someone marked out for pursuit by the ever-vengeful ocean. Sometimes people like these were referred to as “Jonahs,” like the mariner in the Biblical tale who brought bad weather to his ship because he refused to obey God’s commands.
Sailors may have loved women when they were at port, but many of them did not appreciate the presence of women when they were out at sea (especially, if they were virgins, barefoot, or carrying an empty pail). This one probably has its base in practicality, though many captains’ wives and other women sailed and traveled on boats.
Though many of these beliefs or superstitions may seem silly or ridiculous to our modern eyes, some people — especially those who still work on the sea for a living — still adhere to many of these customs, or at least hold them in partial belief. In addition, many of them have roots in practical issues, combined with folk and religious beliefs. They are an important part of learning the history and context of sailing and boating, and though you may never use them or believe in them, they will give your excursions and voyages more meaning.