Superstitions, Rituals and Taboos

Published on April 15th, 2018

Italian Pietro Fantoni notes that before we can demonstrate our racing skills, we must first be certain we have not gone foul on any of the superstition that have been part of our sport since man became a sailor.

From the early days, man realized that the sea can be a hostile place, especially when it was still believed that the earth had an edge that could be sailed off. The sea imposes respect and evokes fears, so there are many superstitions, rituals and taboos.

While time has marched on, Fantoni contends how the intelligent modern sailor, not leaving anything to chance, should still observe the following guidelines.

The celebration of the launch of a new boat has very ancient origins. While today it is customary to break a bottle of champagne on the bow, in ancient civilizations the launching ceremony was more serious.

Homer tells us that the Achaean fleet could not reach Troy, because of strong headwinds that keep it along the coast of Aulis. The prophet Calchas prophesied that the fleet would not leave until the Achaean king Agamemnon had sacrificed to the goddess Artemis his more beautiful daughter Iphigenia. Iphigenia, was sacrificed and the fleet set sail for Troy.

Argo was the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. In her bow it contained a fragment of wood from the forest of Dodona, which could speak and prophesy. To ease the journey, the Argonauts sacrificed to Apollo two oxen, partied, got drunk and then fell asleep to the sound of the lyre of Orpheus.

For the Greeks, libations to the gods were an important rite to be performed before the start of navigation. And the keel of a new ship was made wet before the launch, with the blood of slaves bound in chains.

Likewise, the Vikings sacrificed prisoners to the gods, shedding their blood on the deck to protect their new ships.

For the ancient Romans, cutting their hair and nails when the weather was good was a bad omen. So was sneezing, swearing and dancing on board ship.

Nowadays the launching ceremony, though harmless and bloodless, is still full of superstitions. Many sailors would feel bad if the bottle does not break against the bow on the first attempt … whether it is the bow of a big ship or a Snipe. And make sure to soak the boat with a few drops of champagne before you gulp down the rest of the bottle!

Leaving the dock
“Buona fortuna!” (“Good luck!”) In Italy this wish, for most sailors, means bad luck. So most follow it with a gesture: touching the balls … to ward off bad luck.

Instead of “buona fortuna,” push your Italian sailing friends off the dock with “in bocca al lupo” (which means literally “in the mouth of the wolf”). Or even more specifically, “in culo alla balena” (literally…. “in the asshole of the whale”).

Friday is an unlucky day. This is one of the oldest and most enduring traditions of sailing. It is unlucky to begin a voyage or ‘set sail’ on a Friday.

There is a legend (false) that tells the story of the HMS Friday.

Sometime in the 19th century, the Royal Navy attempted to finally dispel the old superstition among sailors that beginning a voyage on a Friday was certain to bring bad luck. To demonstrate the falseness of this belief, they decided to commission a ship named HMS Friday. Her keel was laid on a Friday, she was launched on a Friday, and she set sail on her maiden voyage in Friday the 13th, under the command of a Captain James Friday. She was never seen or heard from again.

This is a superstition that continues today. It is said that Olivier de Kersuason put off until Saturday the departure for his attempt to break the record in the Jules Verne Trophy, rather than leave on the Friday, despite the fact that he had his giant trimaran Geronimo ready and armed at the dock and the weather conditions were optimal. Despite his precautions the record was not beaten, and other attempts were necessary for Olivier before setting a new round the world record of 63 days in 2004.

There are those, however, who don’t care about Friday. Jean Yves Terlain participated in the OSTAR ’72 (the famous solo race between Plymouth, UK and Newport, RI) with a “small boat” (three masts, 128 feet) called “Vendredi 13”.

However, the French skipper did not win.

For the Italians, more superstitious than other people, Tuesday may also cause problems. “Di venere né di marte ci si sposa né si parte”. “Don’t get married nor leave for a voyage on Fridays or Tuesdays”.

Boat Name
With regard to the belief that changing the name of the boat is catastrophic, the French agree, although with a significant exception. Only on August 15 you can give a new name to the boat, after scrupulously following a rigorous ritual. The boat must be renamed while sailing close to the wind, making a series of short tacks, drawing a zigzag pattern. Then she must bear away and go exactly downwind. The reason for such a ritual? The path is a snake that eats its own tail! Obviously you must add the blessing of the priest. Woe to that priest, however, if he puts one foot on the boat! French Snipe sailors, is this true? Or is it an urban legend?

According to many cultures, whistling at sea brings misfortune. It is said that Fletcher Christian aboard the HMS Bounty used a whistle as a signal for the mutiny against Captain William Bligh.

The British believe that whistling and scraping the mast bring wind when the wind is calm. This is the general rule, but don’t ever do this when sailing south of the Channel. For the French, whistling is dangerous. A sailor’s song from the time of square-sailed ships says: “Siffle gabier, siffle pour appeler le vent, mais sitôt la brise venu, gabier ne siffle plus!” “Whistle topman, whistle to call the wind, but as soon as the breeze comes, topman don’t whistle anymore!”

Unfavorable wind
The French have an old saying, perhaps obsolete, but worthy of mention, used on sailing ships of the past centuries. When they met several days of upwind unfavorable conditions, they would ask, “Vent debout, vent debout sans fin, qui n’a pas payé sa catin?” (“Upwind, upwind endless, who did not paid his whore?”) The unfavorable wind was considered a punishment for sailors who had left port without having paid the bill at the brothel.

For some sailors, there are people who bring bad luck who should not get on board. Jonah is the name given to these people and derives from the biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh. A huge storm arose and the sailors, realizing this was no ordinary storm, cast lots and learned that Jonah was to blame. Jonah admitted this and stated that if he was thrown overboard, the storm will cease. The sailors try to dump as much cargo as possible, but finally throw him overboard, at which point the sea calms. (Jonah was miraculously saved by a big fish.)

Bananas, umbrellas, and hatch covers
Never bring bananas on an English boat (and also boats of other nations, it seems). Similarly, do not get on an Italian boat with an umbrella.

Never turn a hatch cover upside down. Maybe because an upside down hatch cover could be a premonition of an upside down boat?

To ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, dolphins are well-wishing. When they flick under the bow, they indicate the boat’s route. They were often depicted on the bow of the ship.

The ships of the Phoenicians had a decorative spiral pattern or fish tail on the stern. The bow was often adorned with a horse’s head. On each side of the bow, above the waterline, there were two very large eyes that had the task of protecting the ship from evil and scaring the enemies; they also served to “see the route.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner considered it extremely unlucky to kill an albatross:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In anger, the crew forced the Mariner to wear the dead albatross around his neck.

The Greek poet Hipponax (known for being the inventor of a bizarre meter called scazon or choliamb), launched a fierce invective against a painter who had painted a snake (underworld creature), toward the stern, rather than towards the bow: for the skipper this is a bad omen. Surely it is jinx – says the poet.

When you paint the serpent on the trireme’s full-oared side, quit making it run back from the prow-ram to the pilot. What a disaster it will be and what a sensation—you low-born slave, you scum—if the snake should bite the pilot on the shin—fragment 28

Pork in any shape or form was prohibited aboard fishing boats in New England, because pigs and the water do not get along. The reasons aren’t clear, just as is not clear why you cannot talk about rabbits on a French boat.

The sirens were mythological creatures, beautiful and dangerous, who enchanted the sailors with music and persuasive voices. In Homer’s Odyssey, they are presented as marine singers, inhabitants of an island near Scylla and Charybdis (the present Straits of Messina) who enchanted, and then killed, the sailors who imprudently landed there. Their deadly island was littered with rotting corpses. But Odysseus, advised by Circe, ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship and inserted wax in the ears of the other sailors. (Why he did not simply plug his own ears has never been made clear.)

In a tradition now politically incorrect, a woman on a boat carries bad luck. The “scholars” believe that the origin of such prejudice comes from the “fact” that every woman is a witch and witches bring storms and other disasters. The French and Italians believe this, but not so for the British, at least so it seems. In the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time it was not uncommon for women to be present, even on battleships. Lady Hamilton was the hostess for long periods on the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

In Italy, a green boat is considered the bearer of bad luck. At first, the ban concerned only clothing. Never wear green clothes, perhaps because green is not distinguished from sea water. Subsequently, the ban was extended to the color of the boat. The “believers” cite the example of Gatorade, which almost sunk in the Southern Ocean during a Whitbread Ocean Race, and all the green spinnakers of Paul Cayard’s America’s Cup boat in 2001 that exploded, to the benefit of Prada. So green is bad.

I read recently in a book that for American fishermen blue is not a good color for a boat. I also think that for American sailors red is unlucky, remembering the red 12 meter Liberty that lost the Cup, ending the longest winning streak in the history of sports.

For colors, everybody has a different theory.

Clothes and other taboos
It is a widespread belief among sailors that wearing the regatta T-shirt is bad luck; you can wear the shirt, but not until the next regatta.

Here are some other less well known taboos.
• Do not launch the boat first
• Avoid go sailing the day before the championship
• Never wear clothes ever used in racing (you must also train your clothes)
• Never reminisce before a regatta about a storm that brought damage to your boat.

There are so many superstitions and rituals we still follow today. Even the most absurd and irrational superstitions remind the modern racer, as they reminded sailors in the past, that man is fallible and boats are fragile. So I hope you have taken good notes, in order to protect yourself and your boat against bad luck in the unknown future.

Homerus – Iliad
Homerus – Odissey
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Hipponax – fragment 28
Appollonius of Rhodes – Argonautica
Terry Coleman – Nelson – 2001
Linda Greenlaw – The Hungry Ocean – 1999
The Daily Sail ( – The Snake on Superstition
BBC website – Naval Friday 13th myth unfounded
Scuttlebutt – Boat naming for all occasions

Source: Snipe Today

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