Superstitions in Sailing – Luck and the Supernatural

Superstitions in Sailing – Luck and the Supernatural

Superstitions! Those widely held, yet irrational, beliefs in supernatural influences - especially when it comes to good or bad luck. Sailing lore is full of them dating back to the time when sailors were wholly at the mercy of Mother Nature. Some sensible and some downright weird – here is a collection of sailing superstitions from around the world to bear in mind for your next sailing trip.

Beware the Crimson Sunrise

"Red Sky at night, Sailors delight; Red Sky in the morning, Sailors take warning" is probably one of the most well-known nautical sayings. One of the first references can be found in an old English bible and was repeated over the many centuries that England had a rural and maritime economy and weather, with no accurate way of forecasting it was a matter of life and death.

If the sunrise over the sea is red, take care! The day ahead is likely to be dangerous and unpredictable. The perfect excuse to stay anchored in that beautiful bay for a lazy day on the boat.

Kitty Onboard

Usually, if a black cat crosses your path, it’s a bad omen. Not for the Irish and British sailors of olde who believed it was good luck to have a black cat onboard – the” ship’s cat.” Evidence as far back as the Ancient Egyptian traders shows cats onboard, probably to control the rodent population on the merchant vessels. Cats, according to sailing folklore, have powers that protect ships from dangerous storms. Barometers of old times, if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a was on the way; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was playful and full of energy it meant wind. While sailing with pets can be tricky, a cat onboard could be the key to your ideal sailing vacation.


Since ancient times, dolphins have been considered special. The Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, was always shown surrounded by them and in Greek legends dolphins were believed to be rescuers of humans. Chinese, Byzantine, Arab as well as European sailors all have stories of dolphins rescuing ships or sailors in distress. Dolphins swimming with the ship are seen as a good omen for a safe journey and favourable conditions, so look out for these incredible creatures when you are sailing on the open sea.

Patron Saint of Sailing

If you are sailing in Greece or Croatia, you might find a small icon of Sveti Nikola (HR) or Agia Nikolaos (GR) (St Nicholas) the Patron saint of sailors and fishermen on your charter boat. He was thought to protect sailors at sea and many ports in Greece have icons of St. Nicholas, surrounded by votive offerings. In the coastal areas of Croatia, children wait for Sveti Nikola on the shore on the 6th of December. He arrives by boat and brings them gifts (sweets for the good, sticks for the bad!). Also, chapels dedicated to this saint perch on the cliffs of islands watching over the sea. Don’t forget to blow the horn to pay respect to the patron saint of sailors as you sail by.

Tattoo Talismans

Tattoos on sailors began back in the 1700s with the well-known sailor and explorer Captain James Cook’s arrival in the South Pacific. Polynesian’s used distinctive tattoo art to express their identity, personality, status and sexual maturity. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed and Cook’s crew got tattoos to remember their visit. Having been such a successful voyage, tattoos became thought of as a good omen by other sails and the trend caught on. Sailors got inked up believing that the tattoos brought luck and protection. Roosters, pigs and swallows were particularly favoured as good luck symbols and the nautical star is still popular amongst men and women of the sea. Later on, Western European sailors took up the practice of tattooing religious designs on their bodies to appease the angry forces that caused storms and drowning at sea.

Witch Repellent

Keep witches away from your charter boat, by making sure any eggshells on the boat are broken up into tiny pieces. Dating back from the 1500′s, this superstition suggests that a witch could snatch up a good piece of eggshell and use it as a boat, sailing out to sea to cast spells that would sink ships!

In the 1840′s the Irish sailors’ take on this was slightly different. They broke their eggshells into tiny pieces to keep the lucky Irish Fairies who’d accompanied them to America from going home by eggshell boat.

Banana Ban

‘No bananas on board’  is another odd superstition, especially on fishing boats. Believed to be so unlucky that they would cause the ship to be lost, there are a few theories about how bananas came to be thought of in such bad light. Back in the 17th / 18th century, there were plenty of ships carrying the sweet, exotic fruit from the Caribbean to Europe. Some of these were badly overloaded and sank. Another idea is that the tropical insects living in the banana plant may have infested the cargo ships. Perhaps the slippery nature of their skins was also cause for concern.

Be like a Pirate

Personal grooming on a sailboat was considered extreme bad luck. Cutting your hair, shaving a beard and trimming finger and toenails were sure to bring stormy weather and even capsize the boat. Rite of passage for sailors on their first circumnavigation of the globe, or crossing of the equator, was to pierce an earlobe and wearing a gold hoop brought good fortune and great sailing conditions. Some believed that the gold earring held magical healing powers and would prevent the wearer from drowning. Whistling is an absolute no-no in case you whistle up a storm. And don’t forget the tattoos!

Whether you are superstitious or not, know that you have the power to make your own luck and with a trusted charter company and an experienced skipper you have nothing to worry about (unless they are redheads or have flat feet, of course).


By Merryn Wainwright

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