The following was written by Mark Riley, author of "Haunted Scarborough". Whilst researching ghost stories for the book he conducted several interviews with some of the old local fisherman of the town and naturally the conversation turned to superstitions at some point.
Women are not allowed on board a ship. The seafarer worships a different god to landlubbers, their god is a beautiful female who does not like the men to pay attention to any other woman than her. Having a woman aboard makes her angry and she will stir up the ocean creating great waves to destroy the ship and all aboard her. If a woman was aboard and the sea became rough, the woman aboard should take off her clothes baring her breasts as this would calm the sea once again. During the 1700's bare breasted figureheads were placed at the front of the ships, this they believed would keep away any bad weather or storms. By the 19th Century the figureheads where believed to have more effect if the face represented a real life person, usually they were the replica of a famous female singer or the beautiful wife or daughter of the ships captain.
Certain types of people to avoid whilst on route to the boat/ship from home. If you were to meet anyone with red hair a sailor or fisherman should always speak first and say hello to them, for if you allowed the redhead to speak first this was a sure sign bad luck would meet you out at sea. If you yourself do meet a fisherman whilst he is on his way to his ship, do not under any circumstances wish him 'Good Luck' as this polite gesture has the opposite effect for the fisherman, and his only way to break the bad luck curse is by drawing blood. The last person to avoid is a priest. A priest always wears black and black is associated with funerals so meeting one could be seen as a sign of your own death being foretold. As I mentioned earlier the god of sea farers is a very jealous woman, acknowledging a priest could be seen as a snub to her authority, Black is a colour always associated with death carrying a black bag or wearing black clothing is said to entice death to come a knocking. However a black cat, which is unlucky on land if it crosses your path, is seen in a different light to a sailor having one on board is a sure sign for a safe return.
Friday's played a great part in their lives. The fishermen called it Unlucky Friday and it was believed a voyage should never be started on this day, whilst a voyage starting on a Sunday was considered good luck. Christ was crucified on a Friday and resurrected on a Sunday. So sailing on a Friday was believed disrespectful for this reason. Some even say if you look into ships that have been lost at sea you will find they most probably disembarked on a Friday. Sunday was believed a good omen and starting the voyage on this day would bring you a good catch at sea. In fact some fishermen say on leaving the harbour 'Sunday Sail, Never Fai'. Never start a voyage on the first Monday of April, as it will surely bring bad luck to all aboard.
It is said that it was on the first Monday of April when Cain slew Able. Another date that should always be avoided is New Year's Eve, December 31st, it was on this day Judas Iscariat (the Apostle who betrayed Jesus) committed suicide by hanging himself.As you approach your vessel never turn and look back, this is thought to be a sign you know you are not going to return, due to an accident to yourself or the whole crew. Always board using your right foot first as not to do so will bring disaster. Once you set off to sail some fishermen pour wine over the deck when going on a long voyage, as they believe it will bring them good luck, some say it is an offering to the gods and in return they will protect you throughout the whole journey.
Throwing stones overboard and bringing flowers aboard a ship. I was told a story of how a young man on his first voyage upset the rest of the crew so much they nearly threw him overboard. On return to shore the young man was put onto the harbour and told never to show his face again, the crew blamed the young man for having empty nets when he threw stones overboard out of boredom, as a result of his actions a storm erupted and the nets became damaged. Doing such a thing is a sign of disrespect to the ocean who will retaliate with large waves and storms. The same man told of how as a young man himself his wife had asked if she could give him a bunch of flowers for the captain, This enraged the Husband as flowers aboard a ship are a sign a funeral will take place, and the flowers would be reassembled to make a wreath.
Never cut hair or nails the day you sail as these are said to be given as offerings to Proserpina, and to give her offerings would upset Neptune. Hearing church bells whilst at sea would tell me someone aboard is about to die. And did you know a fisherman will not wear the clothes of a fellow crew member who has died, even if he has no other items to choose from, as to wear another dead man's clothes will bring about your end. When taking a drink from a glass and you knock the glass, if the top starts to ring stop it immediately as this is another sure sign you will soon become shipwrecked. BIRDS: A bird considered bad luck is the Curlew, which is easily recognisable by its long down-curved bill, brown upper parts and long legs. They are usually seen around the coastline of the UK, and this is not a concern to sailors unless they witness the bird out at sea then they are considered bad luck.
Never kill a gull or albatross. Many people do not like gulls but these should be respected by anyone who goes to sea. These birds carry the souls of dead sailors and to kill one will result in the loss of the soul it is carrying.There are some birds considered to be good luck such as the swallow to which we will return shortly, seeing one during a voyage will place a smile on any man's face. It would be unusual to see one at sea as they are traditionally seen on dry land and are a land bird. Seeing one would imply to the fisherman that land is close by, another belief is that swallows return to the same place every year and this is an indication of the fisherman returning home safely.
Amongst sailors it became a tradition to have their first swallow tattoo after sailing 5,000 miles, usually on their hand and then on the other hand after sailing the second 5,000 miles. Other occasions was when a sailor had crossed the equator he would get one swallow tattoo and his second tattoo after returning. However an older story tells that the history of the swallow tattoo goes back to a ship that was named The Swallow. It is said a mutiny had taken place on board, and in order for the 7 mutineers to recognize each other more easily, they each had a tattoo of a swallow on their chest. The removal of their shirts let each one know who they could trust during the mutiny.
They say taking a feather from a Wren that is slain on New Year's Day is believed to protect the men from dying in a shipwreck.
A Dolphin that swims close to a boat or ship is said to bring good luck to both vessel and crew. Fishermen believe that the Dolphin is a sign of protection and a bringer of fortune, seeing one they thank it and hold firmly they will have a good catch. Other signs of good luck include placing a silver coin under the masthead for a successful voyage, and if a stolen piece of wood is mortised into the keel they believe the ship will sail much faster than usual.
Bananas are very unlucky to have aboard a ship during the early 1700's it became first known Bananas aboard a ship would bring ill fortune. It was said that a look into all the ships that had not made their destinations and had disappeared during this time, it was found they all had one thing in common; every one had been carrying a cargo of Bananas. Word soon got around and it very quickly became a superstition that carrying the fruit would have the same effect on any ship.
Even fishermen became concerned about any of their ship mates bringing one aboard. The second possible origin of the superstition that came my way was that the whole thing started with slavery. It was said the fruit would often be carried aboard slave ships. The fruit which gives off methane gas when fermented was said to travel below deck gassing anyone down there. It was believed many slaves and deck hands died as a result of this, so it is bad luck to have aboard as it is a silent killer.
The third theory was that bananas are known to have a further danger added to them, a species of spider which has a lethal bite. Crewmen aboard ships suddenly started to die for no apparent reason until it was discovered they each had bite marks on them. Eventually it was discovered a venomous spider, the Brazilian wandering spider, whose common name is the "banana spider", simply because it has a tendency to hide in the banana bunches on plantations, it is occasionally found as a stowaway within cargos aboard ships was the culprit. Finally the last origin is that Bananas where carried only on the fastest ships to stop them spoiling during the voyage.
The ships used where so fast they caused fish to flee the waters along the shipping lanes, making it difficult for fishermen to catch anything therefore they became a bad omen for scaring away the fish.