Superstitions among sailors - what you should do or say aboard

Unlike land the sea acts very much as a being of its own right. With rare exception the land is benign. Even in a small bay, the sea may decide it is your turn to drown.

We are insignificant mites upon the sea, and even today with man’s vast ego as to how much we know about the sea we actually know very little. If we did, we wouldn’t be hellbent on bowing the planet to our needs.

A true sailor knows humility before this giant beast that encircles and blankets the planet. Even to this day you can scare a sailor by doing something that ashore you could get away with.

Let’s have a look at some superstitions that sailors have - you may laugh but please don’t fall foul of them before a Kavas yacht’s mast.

Ringing glasses - the bells of a doomed ship

Ringing bells at sea foretell the death of someone aboard

This applies to anything that sounds like a bell, even clinking glasses at a booze up.

If you lick your finger and run it around the rim of a glass to make the ringing sound, please beware a sailor might be about to punch you.

Banana boats

Bananas are bad luck on boats.

No, they don’t make the deck slippery as so many comedians would have you believe! As they ripen and start to rot in the hold they produce methane, a poisonous gas that has suffocated thousands of sailors over time. In the days of the slave trade slave ships used to carry bananas which, if store incorrectly could wipe out their human cargo too.

Another problem with bananas is that the banana trees are inhabited by very venomous spiders that can kill you with one bite. This is still a problem on modern banana boats that carry unripened bananas across the world - the fruit are unloaded into special processing centres where the nasty eight legged beasts are dealt with.

Cut flowers?

Yes, they are used in funerals. Portents of a member of the crew kicking the bucket.

Drinking and fighting

Sailors love a few beverages. After a little while at sea we might drink until dawn or longer.

Port towns the world over a renowned for sailors sinking their bodyweight in booze and frequently having disagreements. Did you know that drawing blood before a voyage is good luck? If you see a drunk sailor hellbent on 'having a discussion' with you, he may be about to go to sea and needs some luck from falling out with you and drawing your blood!


You used to be able to tell the guy in a bar drinking rum like it was beer was a sailor from his tattoos.

Now that might be different as Millennials think it an absolute essential in life, even if they sail a desk for a living. Tattoos of mythical animals are on a sailor’s arms and legs as it is believed that if they fall overboard or the ship sinks, the animals on their arms and legs will carry them to the surface.

Probably lost to the Millennial, that one...

Sailors are hairy buggers!

Cutting your hair or nails at sea can bring about bad luck to the ship.

That’s why the tattooed drunken thug beating sense into you in the bar may well have long hair and an untrimmed beard!


Even more than our booze, we love a good woman to while away our time with. Naked women especially!

A naked woman aboard is supposed to quell the seas and give Neptune good humour. When 20 or so years ago the Royal Navy announced it was to have women aboard who were to be dressed and there to fight alongside the men, this almost caused mass mutiny. Why? Neptune prefers your clothes off, ladies.

If you’ve ever wondered why there is a bare breasted woman on the bowsprit of so many old ships, this is why - Neptune is less likely to give your ship gyp when he sees a good pair of tits...

You may find that on longer distance trips a rule of 'no exclusive relationships' may be instituted by the captain (this applies between two men and between two women too for those that way inclined) as the intensity of those relationships as well as the jealousies of those denied the fun of what two people do in private can cause all sorts of morale issues at sea. An unhappy ship doesn’t sail very well.


Equally scary for a sailor is the presence of a priest aboard (though presumably just a Christian one not one of Neptune).

Why? They direct funerals and the sailors aboard will spend the entire voyage wondering just whose that will be...

Never begin a voyage on a Friday!

If at all possible, never begin a voyage on a Friday... it is believed that Christ was crucified that day. Many a shipwreck has occurred after the unfeeling Master insisted on going to sea on a Friday.

If he left on Thursday he wouldn’t be thanked as Thursday is derived from the Norse god ‘Thor’s Day’. Thor is the god of storms.

On the second Monday in August Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed - God’s wrath may come to you.

On the first Monday of April, Cain was murdered - humanity’s first murder and a portent of doom.

Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the 31st December.


Like many a sailor I know a few people who have gone to sea and not come home. I’ve written about a few of them here. Even so I will never speak of someone being ‘drowned’ while afloat as it could bring about another drowning.

Never wish someone "good luck!"

I have a confession to make. Before the Golden Globe round the world race I told the guy who was least likely to make it back 'good luck'...

I will blame myself for eternity if he comes to trouble, as wishing someone good luck before they go to sea inevitably brings them bad.

There was a sailor there I didn’t want to make it - perhaps I should have said that to him instead!

Whistling up a storm

Unless it is a dead calm and you cannot see a bit of wind coming at all, do not whistle at sea.

Why? Whistling calls up the winds. If your captain asks you to whistle due to the calm, then go ahead - but do be warned that this could bring about a storm from which the vessel might not recover.

On an Ionian yacht charter in summer you may be the only boat in a thunderstorm - you’ll regret your silly tune soon enough!

Name changing

It is well known that two boats manufactured identically will have totally different behaviours...

One may be sweet as as a nut and the other a cantankerous old dog. They have lives and characters which is why we refer to them as 'she' and not 'it'.

Never change her name without a ceremony as she may curse you and become an unlucky ship. The name should be changed by writing her old name, on a piece of paper, sealing it in a wooden box and setting fire to the box.

12+1=? Shh!

A final fear to note is the number that results from adding 12 + 1. Don’t say it - it is one of the foulest words you can say on a ship.

By comparison the very useful 'f-word' is perfectly acceptable, as is the name used for the splice that attaches breach rope of a cannon to the hull (that also refers to a woman’s genitals).

Say either rude word liberally but please don’t say the number that results from 12+1 or 5+8!!! That is just an unlucky number...