Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tricoastal Maritime Superstitions

The clipper ship Flying Cloud, courtesy of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum

On a recent Hudson River fishing trip, my friend Jack Brennan brought a bag of snacks.  When he took out a banana, the guide became agitated, saying, “You can’t bring bananas on board, they’re bad luck!”

My friend Allen has a friend, Neil, who fishes the Hudson.  When Allen asked Neil about bananas, Neil explained that when ships brought bananas in large bunches from South America to the United States, sailors disliked this cargo.  Snakes or spiders hid in the bananas and bit/stung sailors.

Bob Frisbie, Executive Director of the Ashtabula(Ohio) Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum, on Lake Erie, understands the banana superstition.  “I used to work with produce at A&P, which received bananas in metal cases.”  “Whenever I worked with these cases, I was always petrified; I knew big spiders could come out of them; I once saw a spider the size of a silver dollar.” 

Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum 

Chris Gilchrist, Executive Director of the National Museumof the Great Lakes, explained the line in Gordon Lightfoot’s Edmund Fitzgerald, about “the gales in November” is true.  Chris said a researcher proved this legend is fact by reviewing Great Lakes shipping records from 1913 to 1948.  During November in these years, marine insurance rates and crew salaries increased; more gales are found in weather records.

Chris noted that when Mrs. Fitzgerald tried to christen the Edmund Fitzgerald at launch, it took three swings before the bottle broke.  Then, an onlooker died of a heart attack during the launch; it’s always considered bad luck if a person dies at a launching.

A diagram of the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald from the Coast Guard inquiry into its sinking

Liz Ruth-Abramian, Librarian at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, suggested I read Sea Classics magazine for superstitions.   In the May, 1972 Sea Classics, Doris Kloss offered christening comic relief, to offset that sad story about the Edmund Fitzgerald. 

Eleanor Roosevelt was going to christen the USS Yorktown in 1943 but the carrier started moving down the ways before the christening program was over.  “Jumping to her feet,” Kloss wrote, “Mrs. Roosevelt barely managed to crack the bottle of champagne” against the Yorktown’s bow before the ship got away. 

Liz also suggested reading Cedric Windas’ Traditions of the Navy.  According to Windas, the term “Raising the Wind,” slang for raising funds for a specific purpose, “dates back to early days when a shipmaster would go to a witch or fortune-teller and pay big money for the .  . . assurance that good winds” would grace the trip and bring everyone safely home.

Windas explains the term “whistling for the wind” comes from old Norse times.  Vikings believed if they whistled loudly, Thor “would whistle in answer, creating a breeze” that would enable sailors to stop rowing and raise the sail.

In 1975, my father and I enjoyed visiting a maritime state park in San Francisco.  The park is now the San Francisco Maritime National Park.  Gina Bardi, the Park’s Librarian, found superstitions in the Park’s research collection. 

In Horace Beck's Folklore and the Sea, Beck writes, sailors believed that piercing one ear would improve a “sailor’s eyesight in the opposite eye. . . sailors would have both ears pierced to improve their usefulness on watch, and the skipper pieced the ear on the side opposite to the eye used for telescopes.”

In Superstitions of the Sea: A Digest of Beliefs, Customs and Mystery, author James Clary
explained "some sailors wore a tattoo for protection.  A tattoo of a pig on the instep or knee was considered a guard against drowning; pig and chicken tattoos gave one the assurance of never being without ‘ham and eggs’; a star between the finger and thumb was believed to help bring a sailor safely home . .  . a wide and handsome display of tattoos was thought to be an effective guard against venereal disease."

Fletcher S. Bassett observes, in Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and Sailors In all lands at all times, that "A writer in the Shipping Gazette in 1869 says, ' it is a well-authenticated fact that rats have often been known to leave ships in harbor previous to their being lost at sea.'"

Of sailors’ dreams, Bassett writes, "To see a dolphin . . . portends the loss of your lady love and to dream of drowning was a sign of good luck." To dream of an anchor, the sin of hope, was always an esteemed happy omen. A dream of fish indicated rain, while one of wading or bathing in the sea was indicative of future bliss"