Superstitions at sea

Cutty Sark figurehead

The Cutty Sark’s figurehead from an angle calculated to save her blushes. However, I can confirm that her breasts are as startling as Chris Partridge suggests they should be (see comments below). Click on the photo to visit the Cutty Sark website

Despite all the potential conventional hazards of collisions, groundings, capsizes, sudden leaks, engine failures and the rest, they do say that boating is a fairly safe activity – or so I believed until I read a press release this morning from the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival.

Inexplicably, their release lists a long series of potential sources of boating danger I had never previously considered, and which I’ve never seen marked on any chart:

•Never step on board a ship with your left foot as superstition suggests this brings bad luck to your journey
•Avoid people with red hair when you are going to the ship to begin a journey. This bad luck can be averted if you speak to the red headed person before they speak to you (if you meet one you’d better hope that they’re not the talkative kind, then, and should we expect the Admiralty to start fitting them with flashing red lights?)
•Black travelling bags are considered bad luck for the seaman (I’ll have to speak to young Jim about this one)
•Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms (we’re safe at Oare, thankfully, as we’ve only got mud)
•Don’t look back once the vessel has left port, as this can bring bad luck (and collisions, if prolonged)
•The only person permitted to whistle on a boat is the captain. Superstition claims that whistling on a vessel causing the wind to blow; therefore the captain will only whistle if he requires a gust of wind (again, I must speak severely to Jim after last weekend’s excessively breezy performance)

Certain precautions that can help however:

•A stolen piece of wood mortised into the keel of the ship will make the vessel sail faster (would it work if I just glued it?)
•Placing a silver coin in the mast-step of a boat will ensure a successful voyage (archaeology shows that the Romans believed in this one, by the way)
•For good luck when taking a long voyage, pour wine on the deck at the start of the journey (did that by accident last week, and it worked a treat)
•In seafaring black cats are considered to be extremely lucky creatures and to bring good luck in bringing a sailor home from sea (handily, we’ve got two)
•If a shoal of dolphins swim along side a ship, this is considered a sign of good luck (though who knows where I can find one of those at this time of day!)

The implications of all this are clearly serious. For one thing, pre-trip sessions to plan trips and discuss safety will now have to be much longer, as even an afternoon sail will necessitate a protracted session with a laptop presenting a series of slides illustrating the dangers of black bags, looking the wrong way and careless whistling.

I used to think sailing was my route to escaping from the unreasonable and conflicting complications and stresses thrown up by work, families, ex-wives and book publishers. How wrong I was…

For further information on the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival visit

Some sea culture-related posts at

Save Mersey Shanty Festival

Portsoy Festival 2007

Cutty Sark coil

Coil on the deck of the Cutty Sark. Click on the photo to visit the Cutty Sark website

5 thoughts on “Superstitions at sea”

  1. Ah, but did you know that as well as whistling, sailors were also forbidden to cut their nails or trim their beards? Its amazing how superstitious some people can be, even to this day….

  2. Reading a mag in the doctor's waiting room the other day (don't ask), I came across an article on superstitions that said that it was also very unlucky for a sailor to see a naked woman on the day of departure, but they also believed that sea monsters would be frightened off at the sight of a naked woman, which explains why so many figureheads have such startling bosoms…..

  3. Here's another figurehead, complete with a single magnificently unfettered breast.

    Here's a link to a book that might be interesting:

    And there's also a mail order operation that can sell you genuine handpainted fibreglass figureheads fully supplied with startling aspects. I don't own a boat large enough for one of these babes myself, but they could be suitable for the living room, a gentleman's study or maybe one's bathroom. See them all at

    <img src="; alt="Figurehead" />

    Startling breasts

    What have you started, Chris Partridge? 🙂


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