13 Sailor Superstitions to Curse (Or Bless) Your Voyage

Steer clear of curses this Halloween!

From women, witches and whistling, to bananas, birds and cats, there are some interesting sailor superstitions floating around. And with Halloween just around the corner (or hiding in a dark galley), I thought it would be fun to share some interesting, and perhaps bizarre, sailor superstitions.

Many sailor superstitions originated from the days of pirates, either from the fictional likes of Hook and Sparrow to the real-life captains Cook and Kidd. But the fishermen, boaters and other seafaring souls of today still adhere to some. Whether you’re captaining a sport fishing boat, a liveaboard dive boat or a pontoon boat, you’ll likely to know or adhere to at least one sailor superstition.

13 Sailor Superstitions to Curse (Or Bless) Your Voyage

Countless superstitions exist and there are more than I could possibly list in one article. So I went with 13 sailor superstitions because, well, what’s more superstitious than the number 13?

Keeping with the Halloween season, I stuck with ones that play upon the pillage and plunder of pirates. After all, how many pint-sized Jack Sparrows will be knocking at your door as opposed to Naval commanders and bass fishermen?

1. Bird Blessings


Seeing an albatross is a sign of good luck and protection. However, it’s considered quite ill luck to kill one. Seabirds, in general, were believed to carry the souls of dead sailors.

2. Don’t Go Bananas


This particular sailor superstition I’ve only recently heard about. (I know, I’m slacking in my pirate lore.)

Pirates and fishermen considered bananas to be bad luck for fishing, as well as most everything else. Were there bands of marauding monkeys out on the high seas? Who knows?

One logical suggestion for this sailor superstition is that a carton of bananas wouldn’t stay ripe for an entire voyage. Another speculation is that poisonous and deadly spiders would often hide in banana bushels, eventually making their way onboard.

Regardless, bananas are still considered taboo to this day.

3. Keep the Tunes to Yourself


While whistling was thought to encourage wind for sailing (sailboats do need the wind), it was more often considered “whistling up a storm,” which of course isn’t exactly welcomed at sea.

So, no whistling.

4. No Women Allowed


Women were not allowed on ships because they were considered distractions. Maybe the sailors just didn’t want their chests of pillage and plunder to be color coordinated and alphabetized.

Naked women figurehead carvings adorning the prow, however, calm the seas and make a safe voyage.

5. Reading the Weather


“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”

This has always been my favorite sailor superstition, and it’s pretty cut and dry. If the sky’s red at night, there will be smooth sailing in the morning. If the morning sky’s red, the outlook is not so good and means a storm’s a-brewin’.

6. Marine Animal Omens


Seeing a shark’s believed to be a sign of bad luck. No explanation needed.

Seeing a dolphin, however, is a sign of good luck, as they often indicate nearby land.

7. Changing the Boat’s Name


It was believed a boat’s name must stay the same or bad luck will prevail. If you do decide to change it, you have to have a de-naming ceremony and re-christen it with the new name.

Breaking a bottle of champagne on the bow is said to bring good luck.

8. Mending With Metal


Some ill-advised pirates thought it would cure, or at least help, bad eyesight to wear an earring (possibly because of the “healing” power of the metal).

9. Written in Ink


Ever wonder why sailors, particularly pirates, seem to sport more tattoos than the average person? They’re thought to bring good luck, and apparently, certain designs are more luck-worthy than others.

Pirates believed a rooster or pig tattoo on the foot would show them the way to shore if they happened to go overboard. It seems like Disney’s Moana had the right idea with Hei Hei and Pua, her rooster and pig companions. No, they weren’t tattoos, but you get the idea.

10. Even Is Out


Use an odd number of fishing nets for good luck. Supposedly, you’re to set out an even number and then an extra one for luck. I haven’t quite figured out where this one came from, but I like the thought behind it. The Baker’s Dozen of the fishing world.

11. Grooming Goes Overboard


If you thought pirates kept up such unkempt appearances because they just didn’t care, you’d be partially correct. But the biggest reason? Cutting hair, beards and even nails were considered bad luck. Pirates were avoiding the wrath of Neptune, God of the sea who considered these locks and clippings an offering to Proserpine, the Roman Goddess of the Underworld. How dare anybody make offerings to somebody else on his watch!

12. Keep Cats as Company


Seafaring felines were considered good luck because they kill mice and pests (thus preventing disease and food loss). They can also be snuggly and a comfort to sailors.

13. Don’t Walk on Eggshells. Stomp Them!


Always break eggshells into tiny pieces to prevent witches from sailing in them and brewing up storms and sinking ships. Hopefully, the witches aren’t whistling while they do this.

More Perilous Nautical Journeys

Looking for more seafaring tales of salty dogs, plundering pirates and the perils of Davy Jones’ Locker? Check out some of these literary classics, which run the gamut from smooth sailing to extremely bad luck. Check them all out on Amazon, available in both hard copy and Kindle:

  • Moby Dickby Herman Melville — Captain Ahab’s bad luck aboard the Pequod, and his obsession with a certain white whale, could keep any sailor off the high seas (or stocking up on everything good in the list above).
  • Treasure Island”by Robert Louis Stevenson — The good luck of Jim Hawkins plays a nice counterpart to all of the ominous events encountered by the other seafaring souls in the literary world.
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge — An albatross is killed (big no-no) and its killer is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck as a symbol of guilt. The expression “an albatross around my neck” means to carry a burden, and is still used today.
  • Peter Panby J.M. Barrie — Everybody’s familiar with Peter Pan and his infamous hook-handed nemesis. Hook could have used an albatross or two.
  • Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson — This tale gives us a prequel to the classic J.M. Barrie tale of Neverland, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook. Blackbeard even shows up in this one.
  • Pericles“, “Hamlet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare — Yes, even Shakespeare entered the world of shipwrecks, sea battles and rescue (as well as captivity) by pirates.
  • The Gold-Bugby Edgar Allan Poe — Buried treasure, secret messages and Captain Kidd are featured in this tale by the master of bad luck and macabre mayhem.
  • The Red Rover and “The Pilot: A Tale of the Seaby James Fenimore Cooper — A sailor himself, Cooper tells the tale of sailors, brooding captains, seafaring tragedy and a pirate known as the Red Rover.
  • Life of Piby Yann Martel — This isn’t your typical sea captain tale, but it does involve a boy, a boat and several wild animals. What could possibly go wrong?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this voyage into the world of sailor superstitions. Smuggling, pillaging and high seas adventure aside, it’s been a fun subject to share. You’ll be this year’s Halloween party hit with all this new-found knowledge.

Just don’t forget to bring the rum.

Sandy Allen is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. She enjoys boating, snorkeling and jet-skiing along the waterways of Virginia, Florida and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Follow her adventures at Somewhere in the Sand.