The Captain's Blog

11 Superstitious Boat Rules to Keep You Out of Davy Jones’ Locker

May 14, 2018 by Michael Kiel

Part superstition, part etiquette, and part practical, there are some funny boat rules out there. Boating was once a very dangerous endeavor, and these rules gave peace of mind about forces beyond our control. We don’t really need them these days, but since most are easy, why tempt fate? Plus, you will look more seasoned to other boaters that you know these things.

Here are 11 superstitious boat rules to keep you safe and sound on the water:

  1. No Bananas on Board. In the 1700s, most of the ships lost at sea were coming from the Americas and carrying a cargo of bananas. In addition, the bananas of the time often housed a deadly spider in their bunches and fermented in the storage compartment, producing toxic fumes. Fishermen aboard didn’t like bananas because they spoiled quickly, forcing the captain to reach their destination faster and allowing little time to catch fish. The rule of no bananas on board is so strict that some boaters today avoid banana-scented sunscreen and even frown sternly at a Banana Boat sunscreen bottle.
  2. Watch Your Step. Stepping aboard with the right foot first starts off a trip “on the right foot.” Tossing a pair of old shoes overboard means good luck will follow you offshore. Earrings were once thought to prevent drowning, which is why most pirates wore one. Tattoos were also considered lucky, meaning it will be hard to criticize your daughter’s boyfriend while onboard, though you can still poke fun at him on land.

    boarding boat boating rules
  3. Don’t Split Hairs. Haircuts and shaving were considered extremely unlucky because this pleased Proserpina and made Neptune jealous. So, it’s a good excuse to go native on your next boat vacation. Unless you’re a redhead. Redheads are considered bad luck. Does that mean that Ginger was responsible for the entire Gilligan’s Island TV series?
  4. Calling a Boat She. This is another hard and fast rule. But why? Some boats were named after a captain’s beloved or a female goddess with the hope that she would protect them. The funniest reasoning comes from Rear Admiral Francis D. Foles, U.S. Navy, Ret., “A ship is called she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; in the days of sailing she had a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”
  5. No Women on Board. The great irony of calling a boat she is that at the same time there was a rule of no women on board. Historically, women were thought to bring bad luck. This had a practical basis because women distracted sailors while performing important duties. Conversely, a naked woman was thought to calm the seas, hence the naked figurehead on the bow of the ship.
  6. Pouring a Drink Overboard. Everyone’s favorite sea deity, Neptune, is thought to enjoy a good spot of rum, so pouring a shot overboard ensures his good favor and protection. He is not really that picky, so wine, beer, and tequila work too. Pouring wine on deck is supposed to please the gods in general but makes a mess, especially if you only have red aboard.
  7. Red Sky at Night. The old saying “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning” is true weather-wise. On the other hand, no whistling on board, because it was believed that you could actually “whistle up a storm”, is not. Many anglers will argue with you about this because it’s a simple fact that making a racket scares off fish.

    sailboat boating rules
  8. Lucky Fishing Hat. Even modern fishermen are a superstitious lot. The lucky fishing hat is a prime example. The hat is usually one that the angler was wearing when they had a particularly good day and will wear forevermore until it falls to pieces. On a practical note, a lucky hat is important to protect an angler’s head from harmful UV rays.
  9. Don't Fish on Sunny Days. This is another truism because the fish can see you and your boat’s shadow. Anglers have an extra advantage on cloudy or overcast days.
  10. A Proper Boat Name. When it comes to boat names, they are limited only by your imagination (and good taste, of course). But one rule of thumb is to think about what it would sound like were you to have to make a distress call. Do you really want to say repeatedly, “Mayday, mayday, this is Piece of Ship?” While the call will be answered, it doesn’t sound great. Even a pretty name such as My Paradise on the Water can get unwieldy. Keep it simple.

    favorite mistake boating name
  11. Till Death Do You Part. Think your boat’s name through carefully, because another rule is that it is bad luck to change the name of a boat. Boats are believed to take on a personality once they leave the dock, and it is not good to muck with it. If you must change a name, such as when buying a used boat, you should go through a lengthy de-naming ceremony. Or else.

While many seem outrageous, boat rules are more popular than you would think. Even large cruise lines such as Cunard, Carnival, and Holland America still abide by them when building, launching, and running their ships. See proof here.

What are your superstitious boat rules, and how did they come about? We want to know, for the safety of all of our readers… and our own!

Michael Kiel