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Folklore  Fishing  Fish  Superstitions  Myths    

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Superstitions at Sea: No Bananas & Other Tales

By SarahD - Published January 19, 2009 - Viewed 11589 times

I love to eat rockfish, pretty much every chance I get. For those people that that live outside of the Chesapeake Bay area, that's a striped bass, a fish with nice firm white meat, very similar to halibut. It goes by a lot of names wherever it is fished, but whatever you choose to call it, it is delicious. It is also still surviving (but still not exactly thriving) in the Chesapeake after fishing bans imposed in the 1980's were lifted. I eat it just about every weekend too. My husband and I spend most  weekends in Easton, MD at our second home on the Eastern shore, where fresh rockfish and other bay seafood are pretty common in restaurants and widely available in local markets. It also happens to be the state fish of Maryland: Celebrate Rockfish at the Table

Thinking that catching rockfish might be a lot of fun to do, once warmer weather arrived (the eating part certainly would be), a rockfish fishing trip on the Chesapeake might be an ideal way to spend a spring day. But knowing nothing about rockfish fishing, or even when the season began, I searched the internet for fishing charters in the Chesapeake offering the opportunity to bring home a rockfish.

One charter service in particular caught my attention. It offered several day fishing packages, left from Tilghman Island (close to us in Easton), and provided a lot of information on how participants should prepare for the adventure. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, don't wear dark or black sole shoes, it said. Dress adequately (warmly) for the conditions, and be sure to bring a camera, a hat and rain gear. All common sense advice for anyone planning an outing on a boat, I thought. The site also avised people to bring both water and food/snacks for the day. As I continued reading the charter web site, I noticed a one line statement: "please do not bring bananas onboard with you to eat"

No bananas? Huh? Really? Why is that?

It seems that the charter captain was referring to a code of sea superstitions that have been around for a long time and observed by seaman and fisherman alike. Searching the internet for an explanation, I unearthed a lot of other maritime myths, legends and superstitions too.

So why are bananas off limits to sea farers?

My initial guess was that peels are slippery, you'll fall on deck if you step on one, or worse, go overboard.


There seems to be a number of explanations for this one. In the early 1700’s, during the height of  Spain’s South Atlantic and Caribbean trading empire, many ships that disappeared at sea and did not make its destination were carrying a cargo of bananas. This gave rise to the belief that hauling bananas was a dangerous undertaking.

Another explanation for the banana superstition is that the fastest sailing ships were used to carry bananas from the tropics to US ports along the East Coast to land the bananas before they could spoil. The banana boats were so fast that fishermen never caught anything while trolling for fish from them, very bad luck  for fishermen.

An alternate theory holds that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented and gave off methane gas, which would be trapped below deck. Anyone in the hold would succumb to the methane, and anyone trying to climb down into the hold to help them would also fall prey to the gas.

And finally, one of the better known dangers of bananas at sea is that a species of spider with a lethal bite likes to hide in bunches of bananas. Crewmen suddenly dying of spider bites after bananas are brought aboard certainly would be considered a bad omen resulting in the cargo being tossed into the sea.

A woman on board is bad luck

Almost any fisherman will tell you that having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. My response to this is "oh sheesh", but I digress.

Tradition held that women were not as physically or emotionally capable as men, and therefore had no place at sea. It was also believed that when women were aboard, men were prone to distraction or other vices (ahem)  that may take away from their duties. This would anger the seas and doom the ship. What was irionic was the method used to counter this effect. While having a woman on board would anger the sea, having a naked woman on board would calm the sea. This is why many vessels have a figure of a woman on the bow of the ship, a figure that is almost always  bare-breasted. It was believed that a woman’s bare breasts would shame the stormy seas into calm.

More superstitions:

Never start a voyage on the first Monday in April: This is the day that Cain slew Able.

Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August: This is the day Sodom & Gomorrah were destroyed.

Starting a cruise on Dec. 31 is bad: This is the day Judas Iscariat hanged himself. Plus you will miss all of the New Year's Eve parties.

Black traveling bags are bad luck for a seaman: Black is the color of death and indicative of the depths of the sea.

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey. Redheads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the redhead before they speak to you.

Never say good luck or allow someone to say good luck to you unanswered. If someone says good luck to you, it is most likely a bad omen and sure to bring about bad luck. The only way this can be countered is by drawing blood. A swift punch in the nose is usually enough to reverse this curse.

Avoid flat-footed people when beginning a trip. They, like red heads, are bad luck. The danger can be avoided by speaking to them before they speak to you.

A stolen piece of wood mortised into the keel will make a ship sail faster.

A silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful voyage.

Disaster will follow if you step onto a boat with your left foot first.

Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck on a long voyage. Don't think I will be wasting any fine vintages this way, however.

Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms. This is a sign of disrespect to the sea, causing retaliation in the form of stormy seas.

A stone thrown over a vessel that is putting out to sea ensures she will never return. Another sign of disrespect to the sea, dooming the ship and all aboard.

Flowers are unlucky onboard a ship. They could later be used to make a funeral wreath for the dead, indicating that someone could die on the voyage.

Priests are not lucky to have on a ship. They dress in black and perform funeral services. They are a symbol of possible death, and anything that makes you think of death or dying is a bad omen.

Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck. Looking back to port implies that you are not truly ready to brave the seas and complete your voyage, bringing about bad luck on yourself and the ship.

A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck. No clue on that one.

Black cats are considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea. While black is the color of death, and black bags or clothing indicate doom, black cats are considered lucky on the sea. This is believed to be the result of the opposite effect of land based superstition, where a black cat is unlucky.

Swallows at sea are a good sign. They are a land based bird and seeing them at sea implies that land is near and your prospects are clear. But sighting a curlew at sea is considered bad luck, as is a cormorant sighted at sea. Just don't kill an albatross. They host the soul of dead sailors and are considered to be an omen of bad luck at sea, especially if killed. Or a gull. They also contain the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck. They are considered a sacred friend of fishermen, they have the good fortunes of man in mind and their presence indicates that you are under their protection.

Considered bad luck: Handing a flag thru the rungs of a ladder, loosening a mop or bucket overboard, and repairing a flag on the quarterdeck. Cutting your hair or nails at sea is also  bad luck. These were used as offerings to Proserpina (Persephone to the Greeks), and Neptune (Poseidon) will become jealous if these offerings are made while in his kingdom.

Turning over a hatch will cause the hold to fill with seawater.

Church bells heard at sea mean someone on the ship will die; St. Elmo’s Fire around a sailors head means he will die within a day.

When the clothes of a dead sailor are worn by another sailor during the same voyage, misfortune will befall the entire ship.

If the rim of a glass rings, stop it quickly or there will be a shipwreck.

Never say the word "drowned" at sea.

The feather of a wren slain on New Years Day  will protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck.

A ships bell will always ring when it is wrecked.

A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death. Sharks were believed to be able to sense those near death.

A sailor who died from violence or being lost at sea was said to go to “Davy Jones's Locker”. A sailor with over 50 years of service was said to go to “Fiddler’s Green” when he died.

What sea superstitions are missing?? Which (if any) do you believe in?

Sarah Doelp
BoatUS Classified Ads Coordinator
888 282 2628 - toll free

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