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Safe at Sea: Superstitions of sailors

By Staff | Apr 7, 2020

Robert N. Macomber is a prolific Southwest Florida author and speaker who resides on Pine Island, where he grew up. As an author, he is the recipient of numerous literary honors, the most recent of which is being named the 2020 Florida Writer of the Year by the Florida Writers Association. Macomber is best known for his 14 Honor Series novels which describe the life and career of a U.S. naval officer from the American Civil War (stationed in Florida) to the years beyond the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In February, Macomber was the keynote speaker at the America’s Boating Club’s national conference in Ponte Vedra Beach. His presentation, “Salty Superstitions,” delighted his audience with a light-hearted look at the culture of sailors and their ships at sea. The following highlights are from his presentation:

Throughout marine history, a plethora of superstition has thrived. Naturally, there are good omens and, of course, there are those that portend disaster. Not surprisingly, the superstitions that result in bad luck far outweigh those that bring good luck. Here are some beliefs that sailors have – had? – that portend a good sailing.


While in most cultures, a black cat is considered unlucky, not so if you were a British or Irish sailor. All cats – though, especially black cats – brought luck to a voyage. There is some logic to this: cats eat/kill rodents, which damage ropes, eat stored grain, and spread disease.

In fact, sailors believed that polydactyl (multi-toed) cats brought the best luck because, they believed, they had better balance. Further, cats were believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Another popular belief was that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails.

If a ship’s cat fell or was thrown overboard, it was thought that it would summon a terrible storm to sink the ship, and that if the ship was able to survive, it would be cursed with nine years of bad luck. (Sound familiar? Perhaps that led to the legend that a cat has nine lives?) Other beliefs included: if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky, it meant wind.


This odd superstition can be both good or bad. First, how is whistling good? Sailors believed that it encouraged the wind strength to increase. In ships where whistling was “taboo,” the cook was usually excused because if he was whistling, he was probably not stealing the food – eating – while he cooked.


Sailors have long had several patron saints. Brendan the Navigator, sailors believed, had took a mythical voyage to St. Brendan’s Island. Erasmus, also known as St. Elmo, became a patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground on ship beside him. This prompted sailors, in dangerous and sudden thunder storms, to petition St. Elmo to calm the seas.


Sailors’ tattoos of the North Star or of an anchor brought luck to the ship. Also, “H.O.L.D.” and “F.A.S.T.” tattooed on the finger knuckles of the “top man” helped him work the sails from high aloft (the origin of a common phrase).

Finally, did you know it’s lucky to touch the collar of a sailor? Who would have thought?

There is one thing for sure: being superstitious at sea made it easier to be on the waters for weeks and months at a time!

Next week’s column will delve into the dreaded bad luck beliefs of sailors!

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and the courses it offers, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.