Seafaring and superstitions go together like the Gorton's Fisherman and a yellow raincoat. There's just something about the maritime life that seems to inspire trust in supernatural forces. Even crewmen on history's most legendary ships held onto practices they believed would ensure successful voyages. These sailors' superstitions vary from the practical and clever to the random and creepy.
Sailing is always a risky pastime, but it was downright perilous before the advent of weather forecasting and modern sea maps. It makes sense that crewmen turned to nautical superstitions in the hopes of safe travel. Some superstitions, like tales of ghostly figures and seductive mermaids, likely arose from the mental stresses of spending weeks on the water. But others seem ridiculous - why on earth would bananas bring bad luck? These sometimes strange, sometimes fascinating facts relate how some symbols and rituals were thought to bring good luck for sailors, and others foretold disaster upon the high seas.
While they're a major import, it's considered bad luck to have bananas on a boat. Why? The fruits are thought they have a negative effect on catching fish. This myth originated in the Caribbean in the 1700s, when boats carrying bananas for trade had to sail quickly to get them to market before spoiling.
Sailing fast made fishing difficult, but rather than blaming the speed of the vessels, sailors focused their ire on the starchy fruits. The boats themselves were also prone to sink, as they were often made with inexpensive, weak materials.
Some superstitions are thought to bring both good and bad luck. Take whistling, for instance - it's thought to both encourage wind and bring on storms. The superstition might have originated with the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, which was signaled with a whistle.
Not every superstition even has to do with being on a ship. Eggshells are thought to be bad luck off of boats. This superstition states that eggshells should be smashed into small pieces, because if they are left intact, witches will use the shells as boats and conjure storms to sink ships.
The superstition was so widely held that it was turned into a popular poem:
"Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me."
The albatross is one of the most well-known signs of luck in the maritime world. Sailors believed that albatrosses carried the souls of dead crewmen; thus, their appearance meant that the spirits were protecting them.
However, harming an albatross can bring doom to a ship. One such imagined incident is recounted in the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem describes how a sailor kills an albatross that had led his ship out of an ice flow. His fatal act curses the ship, and his crewmates hang the albatross from his neck and tie him to the ship's mast as an act of penance. But there efforts are too late: the crew all eventually die and the ship sinks, leaving the albatross killer as the only survivor.