Halloween stokes fear and foreboding in many boaters who reluctantly know the time has come to stash their boat away in a garage or dry slip for the winter ahead. This is the season of scary movies, spooky tales and hot apple cider – not to mention colder winds and rougher water. Traditionally referred to as All Hallow’s Eve, this long-lived autumn celebration offers trick-or-treating and a tridium of feasts to honor the days of the dead and remind people of the concept of the after life. Fall stories of saints and the eternally damned abound, from evil spirits and demons to the angels who battle them. It’s also a time to drink and be merry of course, and to celebrate all the great times (i.e. boating days) that were had with friends and family over the past year.
Above: A lone angler fishing in the fog on a small boat. Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay.
Halloween lore is full of beliefs in the power of the unknown or unexplainable – aka superstitions. As Stevie Wonder pointed out in the lyrics of his famous song “Superstition”, society is rife with these beliefs, from “13 month old babies” to “seven years of bad luck” for breaking a mirror. As he put it, “when you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer…” Clearly Mr. Wonder believes “superstition ain’t the way”, but many sailors throughout history may disagree. In fact, although superstitions are beliefs or practices considered to be irrational or supernatural in nature, many old sailor superstitions and boating legends are rooted in practicality (or at least some historical event). In honor of Halloween 2022, here’s a roundup of some of the most infamous boating superstitions on the water.
1. A Boat With No Name
Most boat owners agree that it’s bad luck not to name their boat, and I’m certainly no exception to this age-old boating superstition. Every boat I’ve ever owned was given a name before I took them out on the water – including my little Starcraft aluminum boat. Many boaters may refer to a vessel of that size as “just a dinghy” – but to me, her name is “Beachbug” (due to the fact she’s so easy to pull up onto the sand). Of course, if you buy a new boat you have the opportunity to christen the vessel with its very first name, which is the luckiest scenario of all. It’s a bit trickier when you buy a used boat, since it’s also considered bad luck to re-name a vessel without a proper ceremony. But doing an official renaming and christening ceremony illustrates a certain level of care and respect for your vessel and she in turn will care for you.
2. Red Sky In The Morning
Above: Red Sky At Night = Sailors Delight. Photo via Pond5.
The sea is a spiritual place that evokes the supernatural. From the unseen forces that form its tides, to the murky depths where concealed, deep-sea creatures dwell – the ocean is a symbol of the unknown. Generations of boaters have observed its natural warning signs and have long believed in numerous nautical omens. As the old sailing adage goes “Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning”. In fact, this may be more than just superstition, as it is a phenomenon backed up at least in part by science. If you’re in an area where the weather patterns move from West to East, a rising sun would illuminate approaching storm clouds thus creating a red sky in the morning. Conversely, a setting sun would illuminate passing storm clouds, thus a red sky at night.
3. Never Set Sail On A Friday
This superstition is believed to be rooted in biblical history. Since Friday is known to be the day Jesus Christ was crucified, it is viewed as an unlucky day to begin an ocean journey. There are many legends (such as the purely fictional tale of the HMS Friday) as well as traditional sailing ballads that tell stories of ships who met their doom after setting sail on a Friday. See the excerpt below from the song “The Mermaid”:
“One Friday morn when we set sail
And our ship was nigh on the land
We there did spy a fair mermaid
With a comb and glass in hand
Then three times ‘round went our gallant ship
And three times round went she
Then three times ‘round went our gallant ship
Before she sank to the bottom of the sea”
4. Whistling On Board
Despite the Hollywood image of pirates whistling “yo-ho, yo-ho a pirates life for me” while hoisting the lines, whistling onboard a ship is actually considered bad form. This superstition finds its origins in the age-old belief that whistling is a direct taunt to Mother Nature – one that challenges the wind itself and can conjure up a storm from thin air. Regardless of whether or not a storm pops out of the sky, whistling on a boat can tempt your fate. In one relevant scene from Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1975 film JAWS, Captain Quint infamously whistles to himself, shortly before their boat, The Orca, is attacked by the eponymous killer shark.
5. Green Is An Unlucky Boat Color
Oddly, green is considered an unlucky color for a boat. This could be due to a number of different factors. For one, green tends to attract insects. Another idea is that green could be harder to see on the water and lead to more collisions with other vessels.
6. A Cat Onboard Is Good Luck
Since ancient times, sailors have kept cats onboard ships to help catch and kill rodents and vermin on the boat that would chew on the lines and eat the food stores. Rats carry disease, so cats would help keep the crew safer by controlling the pest problems. They also tended to be good companions on board and were even believed to help protect a ship from storms. In fact cats often act nervous before a storm because they are able to sense barometric pressure better than other animals.
7. Always Board Right Foot First
For some strange reason, it’s considered bad luck to board a vessel with your left foot. This is another one I’ve had inexplicably ingrained in me since I was young boy. To this day I still always step aboard every boat with my right foot first, and I do admit, my luck has been fairly good. So perhaps there is some truth to it after all.
8. No Bananas On Board
Many boaters believe it is bad luck to have bananas aboard. This is perhaps one of the better-known, if not strangest superstitions in boating. It’s thought the origin of this belief is rooted in the fact that tarantula spiders would often hide within bunches of bananas and would turn up on boats hauling fruit. Obviously, if a sailor is bitten by a tarantula out at sea, they are quite simply, out of luck!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published for Halloween 2019 and was updated and re-written for Halloween 2022.