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Mariners' Superstitions?

People think that we boaters are unusually superstitious. We're not. We're just being careful.

Sailboat Being Towed

The last time I left port on Friday the 13th.

They say that if you don't want something to happen, don't put mouth on it. If you say "Oh, what a beautiful morning" you're going to get blown away that afternoon. If you say "this engine has really been doing great this season," it's going to throw a rod. If you say "I haven't run aground all this year," you're going to be plowing a row in somebody's yard on the bank. A lot of sophisticated people will say that this is all superstitious bunk. I'm afraid to say that, and it has nothing to do with my obvious lack of sophistication. It's because I've owned boats long enough to know that superstition isn't a figment of my imagination. There are things out here on the water that defy rational explanations. This doesn't particularly bother me, because some days I think that being out here on the water defies rational explanation. But I go anyway. So I've learned to deal with it. When you understand some of the principals of boating superstition you can better control your boating life. For example:

  • If you want a porthole to leak put a laptop under it.
  • If you want the head to clog up, invite guests for dinner.
  • If you want a snap shackle to break, hang from it.
  • If you want your shift linkage to break, back into dock like a sport fisherman.
  • If you want to forget to unplug the yellow cord when you take off from the dock, plug it into the most expensive power pedestal in the marina and take off with a crowd watching.
  • If you want the fresh water pump to break, wash your hair with plenty of shampoo.

With examples like these, you'd think that the reverse would be true and that we could control our fate in a good way. For example:

  • If you want to catch a fish, spend a lot of money at the fish market buying fish before you go out.
  • If you want a cloudy cool day, slather and grease yourself up with suntan lotion.
  • If you want a sunny beautiful day, don't go out in your boat at all. Cut the grass instead.

But go figure, it doesn't always work in reverse. If I buy some fish to influence the fishing gods to let me catch fish, I still don't catch any and when I get back the fish I bought have gone bad because I didn't buy enough ice for the cooler. When it comes to boating there are supernatural powers the effect of which goes far beyond "putting mouth on it" or other such mortal efforts to control our fate. For example, we all joke about starting out on a trip on Friday 13. The only time I left harbor on a Friday the thirteenth I lost my boat's diesel 3 days later. And I didn't lose it in the sense of, "where did I put that thing," but in the sense of "it broke down forever."

Superstition isn't always about bad luck. Sometimes it's about good things although misinformed souls ashore don't get it. For example, there is this weird superstition about rats. They say that your boat is doomed if rats start jumping off. I think that "they" have gotten it completely backwards. I'd consider this to be very good luck; not bad luck. I don't want rats on my boat. I've had parakeets fly off and fish flip off, but I've never had the good luck to have a rat jump off. I did throw a rat off once, but the only unlucky one was the rat ... not me. If I ever see a rat jump off I'm going to consider myself lucky. Of course, I might wonder, just a little, why he jumped.

I'd know he certainly wouldn't have seen a cat. Not on my boat. They're supposed to bring good luck unless you look at them the wrong way or they look at you the wrong way. Go figure? I can't figure and from what I've heard I'd have to carry around a notebook listing all the things I can and can't do to get good luck or bad luck from a cat. Which is one reason I don't have one aboard. Another reason is that I'm concerned about this rat thing. If, per chance, (and I don't like to tempt fate) there's something to these superstitions about rats jumping off, my boat would be doomed if I had a cat because any sensible rat would be jumping off the ship at the first sight of a cat.

Then, there are just plain silly things; like spitting. There are all sorts of bad things that "they" say you can remedy by spitting over your left shoulder. For example, the devil is known to follow you to your left and the idea is that he'll stop following you if you keep spitting on him. Actually, at first blush, this sounds like a pretty helpful superstition, but I've got my doubts. I think if I spit on the devil he'd be more likely to shove his pitch fork up a place I'd just as soon he didn't. I also think that if anybody spits on my boat, no matter which shoulder he uses, he's going to know what bad luck is really all about.

Another silly "saying" is that if you step onto your boat with your left foot all sorts of bad things are supposed to happen. Well, I've stepped onto my boat, left foot first, many times. Not a problem. What is a problem is that "they" don't say anything about stepping off your boat with your left foot. I've also done this many times and I can testify that the results can sometimes be catastrophic, especially when the dock isn't there. I don't know why there isn't some legend about that.

Rats, cats, left feet and right feet ... what else are they going to think of to scare us? They're always talking about the mystical powers of the albatross. I can tell you there are birds out there, in addition to the albatross, which you don't want to mess with. Some years ago, while making passage up the coast, we saw some frantic people in a center console off Palm Beach, wildly gesticulating and screaming at passing boats. They had been peacefully trolling when a pelican snatched up their bait and got securely hooked in the beak. As the pelican was angrily circling high overhead round and round the boat, tethered by the fishing line, they started calling Mayday on the VHF. Why the fishermen issued a "mayday," I'm not sure, but they sounded like they were sure. And I also knew that this bird was definitely not happy and, assuming he had the power, was conjuring up some black magic. The magic materialized in the shape of a marine patrol boat. I'm told that it was highly illegal at the time to catch pelicans on a fishing line. But while "they" might say the ensuing legal difficulty was some mystical interaction with a sacred bird, there was a far more logical explanation: the previous action of some unsacred politicians.

So I just muddle along on my boat, day after day, trying not to think about luck; trying just to have a good time. But if I'm having a good time, I don't ever admit it.

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Tom Neale

Technical Editor, BoatUS Magazine

One of the top technical experts in the marine industry, Tom Neale, BoatUS Magazine Technical Editor, has won nine first-place awards from Boating Writers International, and is author of the magazine’s popular "Ask The Experts" column. His depth of technical knowledge comes from living aboard various boats with his family for more than 30 years, cruising far and wide, and essentially learning how to install, fix, and rebuild every system onboard himself. A lawyer by training, for most of his career Tom has been an editor and columnist at national magazines such as Cruising World, PassageMaker, and Soundings. He wrote the acclaimed memoir All In The Same Boat (McGraw Hill), as well as Chesapeake Bay Cruising Guide, Vol. 1. These days, Tom and his wife Mel enjoy cruising their 2006 Camano 41 Chez Nous with their grandchildren.