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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Seafaring superstitions


Sometime in the 19th century, the Royal Navy attempted to finally dispel the old superstition among sailors that beginning a voyage on a Friday was certain to bring bad luck. To demonstrate the falseness of this belief, they decided to commission a ship named HMS Friday. Her keel was laid on a Friday, she was launched on a Friday, and she set sail on her maiden voyage in Friday the 13th, under the command of a Captain James Friday. She was never seen or heard from again.

Don't bother to look this up.  It's false, but a good story all the same, and a good illustration of the superstitious natures of seafarers.

It reminds me of a Wiki Coffin short story that was published by the prestigious Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, in which he was able to break the alibi of a captain who claimed that he could not have committed a murder, because he set sail that day. That day was a Friday, and Wiki knew that the skipper was constitutionally unable to sail on that day of the week.

Italians have it even worse.  Di venere né di marte ci si sposa né si partethey say, meaning do not sail on a Tuesday, either.  

This may be because of their Roman background.  An ancient Roman skipper got very upset if you sneezed, swore or danced on board of his ship.  How he punished a poor sailor for that incontinent sneeze is unknown, but the ancient Greeks launched their ships over a row of bound slaves, which might be an indication.

Mind you, the Vikings were no better.

As for contrary winds, the French sailors believed that it was because someone on board had not paid his whore. Had paid with the topsail, as they used to say. Well, as in all things in this world, it eventually comes down to sex.

A superstition that Wiki Coffin, that seafaring Maori detective, knew well was that hatch covers should never be left upside down.  The logic escapes me, but it was a widespread belief.

I was once informed by a seaman that it was bad luck to carry bananas. So how do bananas get exported? By parachute?  And the French did not like umbrellas brought on board, and again the reason is unknown. 

Animals had a bigger part to play in seafaring myth and legend. Many cultures painted (and still paint) eyes at the bows, so the vessel can "see" its way.  There are lots of landbound superstitions about cats, particularly black ones.  Sailors, as contrary as ever, thought black cats were lucky, and made great efforts to get one on board. 

Dogs, particularly Jack Russells, were also popular. According to a seafaring woman's journal I read once, in New England Jack Russells were deliberately bred to have a patch over one eye, to give the right piratical appearance.  But dogs were carried for their rat-catching skills, not because they were lucky.

And women. This one comes up all the time.  Were women unlucky on board ship?  Well, Horatio Nelson carried various "dollies" on board, including, most famously, Lady Hamilton. Did "the sainted Emma" bring him bad luck? He seemed to do pretty well until he was shot. And it should be borne in mind that busty women were featured in thousands of ship figureheads, many of them naked.

Seriously, this thing about women is a fishing superstition, harking back to the old fleets in the Shetlands, and it was applied to redhaired women.  If a redhead even crossed the fishermen's path as they were carrying their nets to the boats, the expedition was given up, as doomed.  Or so I was told.

So were there redheaded figureheads on any ships? Who knows?

Finally, if you ever get on a cruise ship again, don't cut your nails or your hair in fine weather.  It is guaranteed to turn the weather bad. 

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