Superstition and the Sea

Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we are going sailing. But you’re going to have to leave your luggage on the dock.

Sailors are superstitious. People like to say this as if they themselves are not superstitious, but we all have our less logical leanings. And of course, sailing is extremely dangerous, so it makes sense that sailors are looking for luck. Today we’re going to talk about some of the weirder and creepier sailing superstitions. So come on aboard!

Daring Death: Flowers, coffins, and ministers

Why have everything you need to host a funeral on your ship if you don’t want a funeral on your ship? Duh. For the same reason, a ship’s bell sounding on its own or even a wine glass ringing are unlucky because they sound like church bells. A possibly related superstition warns against bringing black suitcases on board, and some sailors expand this to all luggage. It might be that black bags look like body bags, but nobody’s really sure on the origin of this one. 

Stop clapping and whistling, this ain’t the theater

Sailors at sea can whistle up a wind, and clapping is said to attract thunder. Likewise, umbrellas summon rain, and throwing stones overboard causes storms with large waves, maybe because it’s a sign of disrespect to the sea. Of course, stones cause waves, however small, when they land in water, so it might be a bit of sympathetic magic.

Born in water, safe from drowning

Some rare babies are born with a caul on their head: a piece of the amniotic sac which holds the baby and the amniotic fluid during pregnancy. Sometimes when the sac breaks during birth, a piece will harmlessly stick to the baby’s head. The fact that a baby lives nine months submerged in water is perhaps why cauls are thought to protect against drowning. Sailors or their families would try to purchase pieces of cauls for protection at sea.

 Black cats welcome!

No, really. Ship-board cats are great for catching rats who eat the ship’s stores and spread disease. And it’s possible cats’ inner ears can sense low pressure systems, so there may be some truth to the superstitions about ships’ cats predicting the weather: antsy behavior means a storm. Cats were also thought to protect from those storms, and some sailors’ families even kept black cats at home in hopes of safeguarding their loved ones at sea.

This one is really bananas

Bananas are bad business on boats. Why? There are a couple of theories: ships transporting bananas between the Caribbean and Spain travel some treacherous waters, and high wreck rates may have been blamed on bananas. Bananas also give off ethylene gas when they ripen, which leads other nearby fruit to ripen too quickly and be ruined before they can be sold. And then, of course, there’s the fact that crates of bananas from places with venomous snakes and large spiders occasionally contain venomous snakes and large spiders.

And now for some clear-sailing prompts!

  • Love wins. Ministers and flowers don’t only mean funerals. So what if you had a ship’s captain who noticed too late that some idiot brought on board the rose his sweetheart gave him, and some other sailor happens to have a degree in divinity. You can throw the rose overboard, but sailors, not so much. (At least, you’re not supposed to.) Could a ship beat its bad luck by instead using the rose and minister to stage a wedding? Sailors’ superstitions are clear about forbidding women on board, for various reasons, including misogyny and also misogyny. But maybe a couple of mates might not mind being…mates? At least long enough to go through the ceremony and cancel the bad luck. Fake marriage trope, anyone? 


  • Cabin fever. There are times in which a sailor would wish for wind. Sailing ships can get becalmed, meaning stranded due to lack of wind. The trick would be in whistling up the right amount of wind. What if some people, through training and/or natural talent, could whistle up whatever wind was wanted? They could make their living working on ships. Would they also be sailors, or just mysterious magical people who struck other sailors with fear? What superstitions would arise around the wind whistlers themselves? (Also you seriously need to check out the Muppet Treasure Island Cabin Fever song.)
  • The art of sailing. Magical tattoos are always a fun plot starter. How would sailors’ tattoos work, if spells could be written into skin? You could have tattoos of empty water (empty of sharks being the point) or blue skies and calm seas, fishing spells, money spells, spells against drowning, or even navigators who bear the tattoo of their destination. What if you had a character on board with the wrong sort of tattoos: storms and sea monsters, a shipwreck? Does he have a death wish? Is he out for revenge against someone on the crew? What would a crew and captain do if they discovered these dangerous tattoos on a beloved fellow sailor?
  • Best of luck. Say you had a completely un-superstitious sailor. Someone who, in opposition to the entire crew, whistles, eschews tattoos, and packs an umbrella into his sea chest. But the guy has ridiculously good luck. He’s never been shipwrecked, never even had a drop of rain wet his boots. His ships always reach port a week ahead of schedule, and their cargo fetches a grand price. Perhaps other sailors are determined to figure out exactly what this guy is doing that makes him so lucky. Before you know it, everybody’s dressing like him (down to which shoe he puts on first), eating what he eats, and learning the tunes he whistles (though nobody is brave enough to whistle, they just hum). What would a captain pay to have this sailor on his crew? And why is he so lucky?


  • The devil and the deep blue sea. When a ship vanishes at sea, loved ones are left wondering. There’s so much that can go wrong: storms, fires, attack by other ships or whales (did you know Moby-Dick is based on a real story?), unbalanced cargo, exploding cargo, sabotage, or a host of other random bits of bad luck. Family members would be excused for being obsessed with finding out what really happened. What if you had a character who made it their life’s work to test what broken superstition had caused the disappearance of a loved one’s ship? Convinced that bad things don’t happen by chance, and determined to help others avoid the same fate, they end up retracing the path of the doomed ship and basically attempting to futz around and find out. How would the other people on board that ship react to this plan?

Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday on board! Remember, it’s lucky to pet the cat before you disembark.

Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

You can also check out two Weird Wednesday posts on ghost ships: the Mary Celeste and the Carroll A. Deering.

If you like mysterious tales of the sea, you can read my story The Lifeboat in Seaside Gothic, Issue 4. Cousins looking to scatter their grandfather’s ashes make an unsettling discovery in a sea cave.

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