By Scott Sell
When I lived on Frenchboro, I worked as a sternman for an older lobsterman for a season, because his eyesight was starting to go. Most days we would have the country music station on the radio and we’d sing or hum along while we hauled traps. Sometimes, though, he didn’t feel much like music and we worked in silence. However, I would often have a song in my head and would start whistling a little bit. But it didn’t last very long. “We’re not doing too well out here,” my captain, John, would say gravely. “That whistling probably isn’t going to help us out much either.” Whistling, I found out, would eventually bring about a breeze. Similarly, clapping is thought to bring thunder. Umbrellas are for foul weather use, and bringing one on board tempts fate. Throwing stones into the sea causes storms and huge swells. So whistling, while no doubt helpful to becalmed sailors in need of a gust, was no good for us aboard the F/V Rebecca Jane on a still and sunny day.
I became aware of how centuries-old superstitions – responses to the uncertainties of life on the water – seeped into the work we were doing. John – and every sailor and every fisherman before him – take part in a very specific type of oral tradition that continues to permeate well into an era of fiberglass boats and high-end radar. They are the tips of the trade passed on from their fathers and grandfathers, strange warnings shared with a wink and a grin, humorous to someone who takes superstitions with a grain of salt and deadly serious to those who feel that luck at sea ebbs and flows like the tides themselves.
While walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror is guaranteed bad luck on land, there are innumerable superstitions while on the water. Many have very little connection with natural causes: the belief that bad luck could incur because you brought a banana for lunch or you wear black oilskins seems farfetched. Rather, they simply seem to come from past observations where something went wrong: if the crew happened to have a banana aboard the boat and the engine failed, it was quite easy to blame the foreign object. And in some cases, the stories are simply connected with older and deeper superstitions that have nothing to do with the sea and those connections have been blurred over time. For instance, in the example of the pig, since pigs were connected with the devil from the time of the Old Testament, their bad luck was extended to sea travel. Maine fishermen, especially, go as far as to forbid saying “pig” aboard the boat.
The paradoxical nature of nautical superstitions is fascinating. Women on board are, in general bad luck. However, a naked woman is said to calm the seas, which accounts for the figureheads at the prow of earlier ships, often baring it all. People with red hair have always been said to bring bad luck to a ship or a voyage. But interestingly enough, the bad luck can be averted if you speak to them before they get a chance to speak to you. The same can be said about people who are left-handed or have flat feet. A shark following a ship signifies inevitable death, as they are said to sense those near death, while a dolphin swimming alongside the boat is considered good luck. Don’t kill one though, or bad luck will reign supreme.
I always understood christening a new boat as a simple ritual, something to celebrate putting the boat into the water or giving her a new name. But I learned it’s much more than just a custom. While a christening ceremony is supposed to ensure good luck for the vessel and its crew, its purpose is more to ward off the potential bad luck. Indeed, bad luck in many cases will come from a poorly performed christening, so it is believed, more so than weather events or the ineptitude of its captain or crew. And then there’s the central role that alcohol plays in the ceremony. It’s not uncommon, of course, to see someone smash a bottle of champagne across the bow, but it’s popular belief that having a “dry” boat launch is considered very bad luck. This is not because you didn’t show everyone a good time at your celebration, but rather that you’d be failing to appease Neptune with a gift of libations. To satisfy the god of the sea, people often go a step further and pour champagne and wine all over the deck of the boat, just to be on the safe side.
Changing the name of a boat, too, is serious business. Originally based on the history of old wooden sailboats, whenever you changed her name, you had to shave the old name off, thus making the keel thinner, lighter, and more unstable. Some still hold firm that there are particular steps you need to take in order to have a smooth name change. One popular way, according to Jim Alley of Eastport, is to “write the soon-to-be exorcised name on a piece of paper, fold the paper, and place it in a small cardboard or wooden box. Burn the box. Scoop up the ashes and throw them into the sea on an outgoing tide.”
One of the most universal aspects of life on the water is that there are no sure things and that to count on anything brings about bad luck because it seems presumptuous. Therefore, one is never supposed to count certain things, such as counting the fish you’ve caught – lest the others stop biting – or miles left to travel. The reluctance to take anything for granted is still very much alive today, as can be seen in the fact that no sailor, even a recreational sailor, will ever talk about distances or destinations in definite terms. For instance, instead of saying, “We are going to go to Portland,” a sailor says, “We are headed for Portland.” In the mind of a superstitious sailor, the former indicates that they view their arrival as sure, which would anger God or Neptune or the sea, whereas the latter admits to a lack of certainty, which is far more humble.
In spite of the fact that sailing and fishing has always been a very technical and scientific art, superstitions hold fast to this day, as a kind of response to the mysterious behavior of the sea.