Sailors are superstitious people. They have always been and it´s completely understandable that a tradition that is as old as mankind is will spawn a whole bible full of own beliefs, fears and superstitions. Seafaring was (and still is) a dangerous profession. The men have been away from home for long periods of time, being at nature´s mercy underway, suffering from severe storms, deadly calms, meeting strange people and animals – a whole set of “rules” emerged, many of them still valid today.
I love sailing for being outside in nature, trying to utilize the power of the wind, of the waves to reach new places. But I also love sailing for exactly these stories. Behaviors I see in people which derive from century-old traditions, firmly fixed in today´s proceedings. I´ve tried to collect just some of them which you might not know as of now, some of the more stranger superstitions.
Visiting a French yard some years ago I was told that on French boats mentioning the word “rabbit” was a serious misdoing. In French, rabbit means “lapin” and the bare mentioning of that word would be sufficient enough to get kicked off the crew by the captain. But why is that so? Well, as they told me, it´s a superstition that dates back to the glorious days of square-rigged merchant ships. Back then, the cargo under deck would have been secured mainly by ropes made of flax. This was a cheap and abundant natural resource, a strong material capable to tie together and thus secure the cargo. Well, on long haul trips the ships would have had a complement of lice stock to feed crew and passengers – including rabbits.
It happened occasionally that the ship´s boy forgot to secure the cages thoroughly so that the rabbits could escape. In search for something to eat they would finally start to nibble on the flax ropes. Make a long story short: Ropes would rip, cargo would slip, ships would sink or beach. So, the shoutout “Laaaapin!!!” of a ship´s boy in search for the runaway rabbit would be terrifying the crew. Rabbits bring bad luck (which of course is untrue: Lazy ship´s boys bring bad luck, but that´s a different story). Why this tradition apparently is still very present in France particularly they couldn´t tell me, but I found this story most amazing.
Never paint a ship green
Another such story comes from France as well. See, I love strolling the marinas after a long time at sea to look at boats, meet other sailors and have a little chat. When walking gently up and down the pontoons, I love discovering special boats, beautiful yachts, strange ships. Sometimes I would see a green-hulled boat and raise my eyebrows: A green hull, isn´t that a full-grown sacrilege?
Well, this is something we in Germany apparently do not know: You may be familiar with the most famous “Beck´s Ship” that was sailing for years in the TV-advertisements of the famous Bremen-based brewery. The ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT II features a distinct green hull and as far as I know the boat and her crew is up and well …
My fellow British colleagues, when asked about weird marine traditions of their country, came up with a very unique fact that I found most attractive. They told me that if you board a British ship equipped with an umbrella the Captain will instantly boot you out and kick you off board. I asked the guys: “Wow, why is that so?” They couldn´t sport an answer and just told me “to accept that”.
My own explanation would be that women for most of the marine history were considered bad luck and since umbrellas are attributed to women it may have derived from this superstition. A second explanation might be that an umbrella is linked to bad weather – and there´s nothing more to fear aboard a ship than foul weather so bringing an umbrella was considered provoking bad weather.
Don´t you dare to whistle!
Which brings us to a very German superstition – one that is so strong and perseverant that even I myself won´t tolerate breaking that rule: “Never whistle whilst sailing!” This is a tradition I was tought to respect during my coastal certification by the skipper I truly respected and have sticked to that ever since. Singing – no problem! But whistling is forbidden. To be honest, I widened that tradition and on ships I command the whole music-thing is a no-go: Not because I fear bad luck, storms or the revenge of Poseidon but because I love the silence, the sound of the ocean and the whispering of the wind.
Do you know any “new” and weird marine traditions or superstitions? I am looking forward to reading your comments.
You may also like to read:
The weirdest (and true) story of all time: Donald Crowhurst´s Voyage
Sailing (half) of the world in a King´s Cruiser 33
The German Klappstulle