Sailors’ and Fishermans’ Superstitions

doryMartin Evans on the Marine History List posted a collection of  sailors’ superstitions from the current issue of “Fishing Boats”.

  • Never start a trip on a Friday.
  • Some fishermen would not sail if they passed a nun, rook, or a cat on the way to their vessel.
  • Some fishermen would not sail if they saw a rat some ashore off their vessel – assuming that the rat knew something they didn’t!
  • Never stir tea with a knife or fork.
  • Never cross knives on the galley table.
  • The teapot must not be emptied after the fishing had started. To empty it might make the ship turn over and sink, or result in a poor trip.
  • Never lay a broom on top of the nets.
  • Fish bones were not burnt.
  • Egg shells were broken into tiny pieces (to stop witches sailing in them).
  • Clergy (known to fishermen as “sky-pilots”) were generally not welcomed onto vessels, although there were some notable exceptions.
  • Never cut bread and then turn the loaf upside down.
  • They will on no account part with salt, especially at sea, as to part with salt is to part with luck.
  • The salt-pot must not be handed from one crewman to another – “pass salt, pass sorrow”.
  • Upturning a hatch cover or sleeping on the stomach were actions said to anticipate the boat turning over and sinking.
  • Losing a hat overboard signified a long trip.
  • Taking a watch to sea signified bad luck.
  • Eat fish from the head to the tail for good luck. If you start at the tail it will warn the shoals away from the shore and back into deep water.
  • Flat-footed folk are unlucky.
  • Set an odd number of nets, such as 101; the extra one is “for luck”.
  • Don’t count the number of fish you’ve caught. If you do you won’t catch any more that day. Count the fish when you are safely back in port.
  • Don’t use certain words at sea. Don’t mention pigs, fox, cat, hare, salmon or rabbits, the church, or anything to do with the land.
  • Don’t wash the herring scales from your boots or deck. It will wash away your luck.
  • Don’t go to sea at the start of the fishing season until you have shed a few drops of blood in a fight or accident.
  • Scottish fishermen should throw one of the crew members overboard and then haul him back in. The fish will follow suit.

The wives –

  • A woman must not: ‘wash’ clothes otherwise her husband would be ‘washed’ overboard.
  • Don’t ‘wave’ him good-bye or a ‘wave’ would sweep him away.
  • Don’t call out after him once he sets foot outside the front door.
  • Don’t go down on the fish dock to see him off.
  • Don’t whistle, as this would cause a storm at sea: ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen, Bring the Devil out of his den’.

“Fishing Boats” is the journal of the 40+ Fishing Boat Association:

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9 Responses to Sailors’ and Fishermans’ Superstitions

  1. robert stewart says:

    I knew there were lots of superstitions regarding the sea but had no idea there were this many. Interesting, wondering how they all came to be.

  2. Alan says:

    I imagine these superstitions came about because someone at some point did Action A and experienced Reaction B.

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  4. Kylie Angell says:

    I agree with y’all

  5. Darlene Kesot says:

    Klabouters_These guys are elves who live in ships’ figureheads. They dress in yellow sailor suits. If the ship sank with these guys aboard, the crew went into the afterlife. If no Klabouters were aboard, the crew was doomed to swim the seas after death.

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  7. miles fielding says:

    Does anyone know why cornish and devon seafarers never mention rabbits while at sea?

  8. Rick Spilman says:

    I don’t know. I wonder if it is related to the legends of the white hare.

    A white hare is the spirit of a broken hearted maiden who haunts her deceiver. In Cornwall one such hare also appears to warn the fisher folk of tempests.

    White Hare of Cornwall

  9. Mark Hippensteel says:

    Im the captain of a 90′ fishboat in Oregon& iv heard of all these. But on my boat we dont leave on fridays & dont leave hatch covers upside down. The reason being from experience.