No one purposely hops on a boat hoping for bad luck, but sailor's superstitions say we could easily bring it if we don't pay attention to what we're doing. Three major faux pas are bringing a banana on board, setting sail on a Friday or going out of our way to slay an albatross.
Bad Luck at Sea: Sailor's Superstitions
The Bad, Bad Banana
Bringing a banana on board any ship is believed to bring bad luck, although it can be particularly disastrous for private boats and fishing yachts. Some captains and crews have gone so far as to not only ban the banana, but to boycott any banana-related products. This includes banana chips, banana-flavored candy and clothing or items bearing the forbidden fruit’s image or name.
While the origin of this superstition is a bit slippery, theories surrounding it abound.
- Travelers were injured from slipping on a banana peel.
- Old-time fisherman became ill after eating bananas.
- Bananas as cargo are prone to bringing along snakes, spiders and other venomous vermin which would infest the ship.
- Ships hauling bananas had to travel at high speeds to deliver them before they spoiled. Anyone who tried fishing at such high speeds would end up with nothing to show for it.
- The ethylene gas released from ripening bananas causes other nearby fruits to spoil more quickly. Old-timers didn't know about ethylene gas, but they did know bananas made other fruits spoil and thus must be bad luck.
- Banana oil on fishermen’s hands can spook fish and prevent them from biting.
Friday already has a malicious reputation thanks to the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th. The day gets even creepier from the belief that starting a sea voyage on a Friday is sure to doom the ship.
The urban myth of a ship named HMS Friday seems to bring credence to the belief, outlining how the Royal Navy purposely commissioned the ship to dispel the superstition. The keel was laid on a Friday. The ship set off on a Friday. The ship disappeared and was never heard from again. While the myth is untrue, it still made an impact.
The albatross was long held as a symbol of good luck among sailors, as they thought it served as a sign that land was close at hand. But that good luck runs out if you kill it. This superstition stems directly from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
A young sailor unknowingly shoots an albatross, which his crew members made him wear around his neck. Yet bad luck still befalls them. Winds stop blowing, the ship stops moving and the crew runs out of water. A ghost ship comes along and kills off the entire crew except the albatross slayer, who finally starts praying. The albatross falls from his neck and his life is spared, yet he’s forced to tell the story ad infinitum as his eternal penance.