I suppose as kids you were always aware of some form of superstition from hearing conversations of other adults. “Don’t walk under that ladder”etc. But it was only when I ventured from freshwater to sea fishing that a whole new can of worms opened up as to how much good luck/bad luck could possibly lay in wait for the unsuspecting. Superstitions actually date back hundreds of years. When I decided to look into them for research purposes I was amazed to learn there are not ten or twenty, but hundreds of the little critters out there. Much of it comes from Pagan rituals, and if you took most of them to heart you would never move outside your door. Mind you, there are just as many superstitions indoors, so that might not be a safe place either !Of course to counter all these potential bad luck superstitions you need the good ones as well, so that probably makes you feel better. Once I started delving into water-based superstitions it became immediately apparent there are plenty to choose from. Due no doubt to the fickle nature of the weather on an open ocean, and the fact it can snatch a human life with ease. Although many would not admit to crossing themselves when faced with potential of bad luck, they do cross their fingers, “fingers crossed” to prevent this.
During the years after the 17th century witchcraft was seen as almost commonplace with all manner of terrors available to those unsavory characters who wanted to play on the minds of the weaker. Who was the first to say an open umbrella in a house would bring bad luck? Why in fact, would you want to open an umbrella inside anyway ?Who hung a horseshoe the wrong way up, smashed a mirror for seven years bad luck, first branded Friday 13th as unlucky, or said not to walk under a ladder. They want shooting! Hundreds of years ago there were the aristocrats who were rich, and the bulk of the population was poor. The latter were mostly concerned with getting enough food and warmth to stay alive, so being in an extremely hazardous position, they needed to ward off bad luck, and keep as much good luck as possible. A source of nourishment would be fish, and can you imagine setting out in a ramshackle old boat, with no knowledge of upcoming weather conditions, to catch barely enough food to keep your family alive for another day? Doubtless this is why so many superstitions are water-based.
Never change the name of your Boat.1881.Stevenson.Treasure Island.” Now what a ship was christened, so let her stay I say”. Then, there was the man whose wife died so he remarried and named the boat after the second wife. That was considered going against Providence, (to tempt providence) and the boat was smashed. Many tales were told of vessels lost after their names were changed.HMS Victoria and HMS Cobra were two of these. I bet that’s got some of you checking if that secondhand boat you had really was the first name of the vessel. The delivery of a new boat, if postponed is unlucky. On the north-east coast of Scotland it was unlucky to name a new boat until it was in the water, which is obviously a load of cobblers as most boats are named for registration and the name painted on while still in the boatyard. Back in 1887, fishermen going to sea in the western islands must always get into the boat on the right side, no matter how inconvenient. Can you imagine all the anglers that are now going to tell the skipper to turn the boat the other way round before they board? The skipper’s temper will surely be proof of bad luck. And here’s a really dodgy one. It is unlucky for two seamen to travel together on the same boat if relatives, as one will be drowned. A good chance tells all concerned that I really should be taking that Caribbean cruise on my own! Good job it only applies to seamen.
Bread also features highly with seamen. Apart from being a food source it is said that a tuppeny (how much? I paid over a quid last week) loaf cast onto the water where a person was lost will always float to the spot where they drowned, and sink over the body. You had to put some silver inside it as well, but looking at it scientifically, the loaf will slowly absorb water possibly at the same time scale it takes a person to drown. Any currents (this method used on rivers as well) would sweep the loaf into the same spot where the body was. Or thinking even more logically. If you put fifty quid in a loaf and sent it down the river imagine how many people would then turn out and help with looking for the money,(sorry, body !). With more eyes covering the water it must therefore increase the chances of finding a body.
I remember once going out on a marlin tournament with the boss of a corporation. I was there as backup angler and if a strike came, the boss would get first go. There were big prizes up for grabs; none of which interested me as I am not a competition angler, but when we saw him pass the packed lunch over we nearly fell in the live well. A hand of bananas came aboard, which as any angler worth his salt knows is supposed to be bad luck. We started fishing and after several hours we all knew why we had no strikes, but nobody had the courage to tell the boss. So while the mate kept him occupied on deck I went down in the cabin with another guy, opened a porthole and we heaved them out one by one! The mate saw them go past in the water, but luckily the boss didn’t. I would like to say we won the tournament but we still blanked. Maybe the yellow fruit had done the damage. So how does that bad luck come about? Years ago, when the clipper ships plied the world’s commercial routes using the Trade winds, fruit was high on the agenda. Much of the banana cargo was shipped back from the Caribbean islands. On the way, if there was a storm the bananas were notorious for slipping in the cargo hold, putting a list on the ship, many of which sank. I have to say I have taken bananas out on fishing days to test if it really does work, and can honestly say, although not entirely happy with them, I have still had good fishing days.
The wind is the strongest point in all fishing, so it came to no surprise to learn that whistling on West Country boats may be strictly taboo. I had even heard it said that skippers would stop you getting aboard the boat if they heard you whistling on the quay. The reason? All that blowing is called “Whistling up the wind”, and comes from the days when the wind used to “whistle” through the rigging on the big ocean clipper ships in storms. Yet in calm weather it is said the fishermen on passage boats that plied their trade between Grimsby and Hull would purposely try to whistle up the wind to make their sails fill. I mean you can’t win can you?
The West Country is notorious for all sorts of folklore and superstitions. One of the worst, drummed into almost anyone who has fished Devon and Cornwall, is never to mention those furry land creatures with floppy ears that are related to Bugs Bunny. See? I can’t even bring myself to type the word. BBBB. BBBuuu. BBBuuunnnnyy Rabbits.There.I’ve said it. Mentioning those creatures (I can’t write it again) has led to boats being turned around and the offending angler placed back on dry land. I searched through two books and still cannot find out why that fluffy creature causes such concern in the West Country. And yet people on land used to carry a “lucky rxxxxxs foot for good luck, so it appears to be good luck on land, bad luck at sea.
Another creature associated with water is the Albatross. A monster bird of the southern oceans, they come with both good and bad luck. Mariners always say that this bird is an omen of good luck, often following the clipper ships on their voyages around the southern ocean. But should you kill one, all sorts of bad luck would befall you. Even as late as 1939 a crew of a ship complained that they had a series of misfortunes since they brought aboard an Albatross, taking it on a journey to a zoo in Germany. Serves them right I say. The Albatross is wanderer of the southern ocean and should be left to soar the hundreds of miles it is known to travel. Not stuck in a zoo, unable to flap its wings.
You only need to walk near the sea to find something else. Seaweed. If taken home and hung out behind the back door it can tell you of weather coming in. The simple fact is that it goes dry and rigid in hot weather, but when moist air comes in it goes limp and slimy. But if you keep that same seaweed inside the house it can actually prevent the house from catching fire. (Must save money on smoke alarms?)Another saying is that if you keep a piece of seaweed around the house you will never be without a friend. And I thought it was because I wrote fish articles telling readers all the best places. Now I know. Toss out the Ikea sofa and leave a sack of seaweed in its place will have people flooding to the door. (Probably complaining about the smell!)
Even one of my favourite sharking birds, the Stormy Petrel, comes in for some bad press.” Sailors dread the Stormy Petrel or Mother Carey’s Chicken as they flutter round a mast at night”. When I have a good shark slick going know it is working when the Petrel’s start weaving and dipping in the slick, sipping up particles of oil. Of course, if I have Petrels, I must have a long slick. If I have a long slick it means there must be enough wind to push the boat along. And so we are back to wind again. Not difficult to see where the superstitions spring from. I have a good day sharking. The clipper ships have a bad one because their bananas slide in the boat, banging into an Albatross and knocking the seaweed off the toilet door!
One lucky boat fact I did come across was that of launching a new boat by smashing a bottle of champagne on the bows. I knew if it didn’t smash it was bad luck, but I didn’t know its significance came from the ritual that demanded the death of a boy against the side of the ship as a sacrifice to the sea gods. It seems we have come a long way, as I would certainly not waste a good bottle of champagne, more like a can of Coke.
There are more superstitions than you can shake a stick at, but whether you believe them is up to you. I never mention those fluffy animals on boats, just in case. Yes, I might cross my fingers now and then, but I would always go for the “good luck” things, just in case. I mean you never really know do you ?????
COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen.All Rights Reserved.