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Superstitions at Sea

"Larry, I've got bad news for you. Because you are the youngest member on board, it says here we're going to have to throw you overboard as a sacrifice should we find ourselves approaching a hazardous area or a sea monster breeding ground. It's called 'ducking,' and is reported to be very effective", I read out of an ancient mariner's book of the sea.

Larry tries his best to ignore me.

"Just so happens we will be sailing right through one of those sea monster breeding grounds coming up", Randy, the captain, chimes in, as he surveys a large chart of the Southern Atlantic.

Larry puts down the knot book he's been studying and reluctantly pulls himself out of his comfortable seat. He makes his way over to the chart where Randy is grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Very funny, guys. Looks to me like it used to say tropic of Capricorn here, and it's been crossed out and sea monsters was written in with crayon."

"Well, it might just be that we don't have the right charts onboard. Says here that on all the old charts, sea monster breeding grounds were clearly marked on them", I add, not wanting to let Larry off the hook too easily.

Larry and I are about to leave on a 50-foot catamaran, helping our friends Randy and Melissa make a 6,000-odd mile passage from Cape Town, South Africa, to Trinidad. At dinner last night, the crew got onto the subject of superstitions at sea after I knocked some salt over and was yelled at to throw some over my left shoulder quickly. It made us start assessing just how well prepared we were in the good luck/bad luck department.

Here's what we've determined:

It's a brand new boat, so we don't need to worry about the bad luck that occurs when you change a boat's name. That's good. And luckily, the owners didn't choose a name that ends with the letter A. Boats whose name end in the letter A have been known to bring misfortune upon their crew throughout history, as evidenced by the likes of the Lusitania and the HMS Victoria.

We aren't leaving Cape Town on a Friday or on the 13 of the month, so that should be good for a few safe miles. Both of these are sure-fire ways to doom your voyage before you even get started. Also, the whole crew has been warned about keeping clear of black cats and overturned washbasins before boarding the boat for the final departure, since both are bringers of bad events.

On Serengeti, Larry and I never set off on a long voyage without ensuring that the Old Man of the Sea is happy with us, and luckily the captain of this boat has the same policy. A good shot tossed overboard to quench his ample thirst is never considered to be wasted rum. Particularly since you get to take one for yourself too.

Egads! We've got not one, but four women on board. That's bad. Very, very bad. For some strange reason, a pregnant woman or a naked one is OK. The guys have decided that it will now be necessary to get a naked girl pregnant to counteract this very bad omen.

Garlic. We need to check the galley and see where the garlic got stowed. It's very unlucky to have it close to the ship's compass, and in this day and age, probably bad to have it close to the GPS as well. We're not sure what effect, if any, it has on our satellite communications.

We decided we probably won't have to worry about the notorious Kraken sea monster. This is an octopus-like beast so large that no sailor has ever seen the full size of it. Purportedly, a crew member can be snatched from the deck swiftly and suddenly by a long tentacle of the Kraken, never to be seen again. But that was back in the days when ships moved at a snail's pace. A fast 50-foot catamaran like this ought to be able to outrun a big old fat sea monster who's obviously getting on in years.

There's no sailing through the Bermuda Triangle on this trip, so we should be safe in the mysterious disappearance field. We just have to hope none of us sees the ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman. The captain of this ship, a horrific blasphemer and a miserable sinner who loved his drink, was said to be so wicked that he sold himself to the devil. He was finally cursed for all eternity to wander through the huge storm in which he was lost, never succeededing in rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Some sailors swear he is roaming the entire Seven Seas. Today it is said that if you even sight this ship, misfortune will be your fate due to the severity of the curse. Since Cape Town, our port of departure, is very close to the Cape of Good Hope, we are particularly concerned about seeing the Flying Dutchman.

If we do get into a terrible storm, we can only hope to be as lucky as Joshua Slocum. The famed American solo-circumnavigator, in his 37-foot Spray, was seized with a terrible case of food poisoning when a huge storm came up. He set his sails as best he could, then went below and collapsed. Many hours later, he came back up top, only to find a man at the helm, guiding Spray safely through the storm. This man claimed to be the pilot from Columbus' ship, The Pinta. Slocum was so reassured that he went back below and slept until he was well, and Spray did just fine.

If we run out of wind, we'll have a few options to pursue. A good scratch is said to bring wind. Whistling, however, is not advised, since this often raises a storm, just like cutting your hair on board. The captain's not going to be happy, though, when we resort to sticking knives in the mast on the side from which we want the wind to start blowing. However, it is a long time maritime tradition, and he'll just have to get used to it if we find that the scratching doesn't work.

Shoes must not land upside down on deck when you take them off. This is unlucky because a shoe resembles a boat. If this happens, your boat is bound to also end upside down. We're lucky, though. Since we're sailing on a catamaran, both shoes would have to land upside down to initiate misfortune. Maybe we won't even wear shoes for the rest of the trip, just as a preventative measure.

In the early years of ocean voyaging, sailors were shipped out to sea with absolutely no knowledge of what to expect. In the midst of mighty storms, great anxiety arose from lack of sleep, seasickness, and concern for their lives. This can explain the apparitions in the waves that sailors on their death beds would swear to have seen, or why the screeches of birds would be mistaken for calls of their fellow shipmates returned from the dead. It's understandable how a big whale or a giant octopus could be confused for a sea monster.

Superstitions were a way to help deal with the utter helplessness sailors felt when being confronted by the incredible powers of the sea. Over the years, a great number of rituals and myths have evolved in which sailors believe and follow to "help" them safely make passages. It's pretty serious stuff when you really look into it. A wrong move and you can bring on a bad storm or be stuck in the doldrums forever. Worse yet, you could get snatched away by a terrible sea monster.

But don't worry about us out here. We've got Larry to "duck" should we find ourselves with a sea monster problem or in other hazardous situations. We can only hope that Randy will be one of the more enlightened, modern captains and just lower Larry over the side on a rope as a token offering to the sea monsters, leting him finish the journey with the rest of us. But then again, we've got the rest of the crew to think about also, so maybe we don't need to be too nice.

More Superstitions

Words never to say on board a ship: egg, rabbit, pig, thirteen.

Never turn a boat counter clockwise. This is said to be turning toward the devil.

Coins under your mast bring luck and favorable winds for the voyage.

Flowers on board represent a wreath for a doomed crew.

Eyes painted on the bow of a ship will help her to see her way safely through all conditions.

Dolphins are always a welcome and lucky sign.

Never count the miles you have sailed, or miles left to reach port. (Good luck doing that with today's GPSs.)

The sighting of a comet means an upcoming death on board.

Children on board are a blessing. (Unfortunately for the kids, they are often later sacrificed to the sea gods or sea monsters.)

Cats are good luck (as long as they're not black). They are said to predict weather and fortunes.

Sue & Larry is offline  
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