In general, we do what we can to control our fates. In certain areas of life, the cause-effect relationships are quite clear. If you punch your boss, you will be fired. But on the open sea, when so much is unpredictable and the stakes are so high—a rogue wave could overturn your vessel at any time—you’re left guessing at what works and what doesn’t. That leads to superstition. (Which is not always a bad thing.)
“Among just about everyone I know who’s spent a lot of time at sea, there’s always the sense that there are controlling forces that we really don’t have any knowledge of,” Captain Dave Preble, a fisherman from Narragansett, Rhode Island, and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, told me. “I think you’ll find among commercial fisherman that they have enormous faith in their ability and equally enormous faith in their bad luck.”
So in writing chapter 3, about the superstitious rituals we use to alter our luck, I looked to commercial fishermen. Keith Colburn, the captain of the Wizard and a star of Deadliest Catch, told me about his litany of rules (always having Cup Noodles on hand, for example). And through hundreds of phone calls and emails I reached out to other fishermen (and women) in Alaska and New England and elsewhere. I didn’t have space to tell all of their stories in the book, but as a reference I thought I’d list some of the most common superstitions they mentioned. Here they are from (roughly) most to least common. Some may be highly regional.
• Don’t leave a hatch cover upside down.
• Don’t whistle on board.
• Don’t bring a suitcase or a black bag on board.
• Don’t bring a banana on board.
• Don’t even wear yellow.
• Don’t allow women on board.
• Don’t leave port on a Friday.
• Don’t mention four-hooved animals (pigs, horses, etc.).
• Hang coffee mugs with the opening facing inboard.
• Don’t comment on good luck, or the possibility of bad luck.
• Dolphins are a good omen. Sharks are a bad omen.
• Don’t kill an albatross or a gull.
• Don’t change the name of a vessel.
• Leaving on Sunday is good luck.
• Don’t wear green. (It makes the boat seek land.)
• Don’t say “rabbit.” (No clue.)
• If you meet a minister before sailing, turn around and go home.
• Hang garlic over the galley port hole.
• Don’t use blue paint (particularly on a lobster boat).
• Don’t wear a hat in the galley.
• Don’t step onto a boat with your left foot.
• Don’t coil a rope or stir a pot counter-clockwise.
• Don’t bring an umbrella on board.
• Don’t make pea soup.
• Toss the first fish back. (Or kiss it.)
• Don’t use the number 13.
• Turn starboard first after backing away from the dock.
• Don’t bring honeybears on board.
• Having a virgin pee on a new net is good luck.
If you’re a sailor or fisherman, let me know of your favorite superstitions—of yours or others’—in the comments.
Update: One fish biologist I’d spoken to just emailed to say, “On Sunday [the day of this post] I was rescued by Coast Guard Woods Hole and someone actually asked me if I had a banana on board. Which we did not.”