3. Sailors' Beliefs and
a) Days of
Has it ever happened to you to oversleep and miss an important
meeting, lose your favorite gold necklace and nearly get run over
in the street on one and the same day? We bet it was Friday, the
Friday has long been considered as an unlucky day. The reason
might be the crucifixion of Christ on that day. This does not
make an exception for sailors who avoid starting something new
on Friday, let alone going on a voyage on Friday, the 13-th! For
those of you who look skeptically at superstitions, we are going
to offer the story about the seven-mast schooner "Thomas
W. Lowson". It all happened on Friday, the 13-th of December,
1907 when the schooner broke into pieces. A simple coincidence,
you might think. But later it turned out that the ship had set
sail again on Friday. And not only that. The ship was given the
name of the American writer Thomas Lowson who wrote the satirical
book "Friday, the 13-th" in which he derides the "silly"
There is one exception in the history of sea explorations,
though. Christopher Columbus discovered San Salvador Island on
Friday and returned home safely.
Another bad day for sailors was Thursday. Actually, Thursday was
the day of Thor (and hence Thor's day) - the god of thunders and
storms in Scandinavian mythology.
A good day for setting sail is Sunday. The Danes even believe
that any other day of the week brings bad luck.
b) Beware of Women!
Nowadays, no one believes in mermaids or sirens but you can
see them tattooed on sailors' shoulders. In the past, very popular
was the myth about women with the lower body of a fish who tempted
seamen with their beauty and songs and then killed them. It is
said that Odysseus stuffed his ears with wax and tied himself
to the ship's mast so as not to hear the mermaids' singing and
to escape from the "danger". Columbus even wrote a special
guide for sailors on how to protect themselves from those sly
creatures, "eating human flesh".
Perhaps, the legends about mermaids have implanted in seamen
a bit of prejudice against women aboard - women on board the ship
were said to bring high wind or dead calm. Some captains did not
pay attention to such "nonsense" and took their wives
with them. Male children, born on the ship, were referred to as
son of a gun because a convenient place for their birth was among
guns on the gun deck.
c) Sea monsters
Do sea monsters really exist? Stories about unknown creatures,
inhabiting the deep, have existed for a long time. Most of them
are exaggerated and some are even made up to scare people. These
tactics were used by the Phoenicians who did not want others to
sail beyond Gibraltar. Many of the "monsters" were sea
animals such as the sea serpent and giant squid which sometimes
attacked fishing boats and terrified people with their sight and
However, we cannot dismiss the large amount of recorded sightings
of unexplainable gigantic beings, spotted all around the globe.
We cannot also ignore facts and evidence of the existence of such
creatures that amaze even professional marine scientists. Everybody
has heard about the Loch-ness monster of Scotland (Nessie) - perhaps
the most popular monster of all times. Of course, there are other
reports as well, such as the one from Japan, back in 1977, when
fishermen came by a heavy catch - the decomposing body of a huge
snake-like creature. Further research showed that this "monster"
was unknown and could not be identified. Imagine the confusion
on scientists' faces when they determined the discovered species
to be similar to a land dinosaur that disappeared 70 million years
Doesn't it seem like an illusion that people have explored
the oceans? We can never be sure what mysteries are hidden in
the deep blues.
d) Mysterious stories
We cannot omit to mention the story of the Flying Dutchman
here. As a matter of fact, this story is a mixture of reality
and imagination, and therefore it is better called a legend. The
Flying Dutchman was a phantom ship that brought disaster to everyone
who saw it. The legend branches into a couple of variants. One
of them tells about a Dutch captain who, in his failure to surround
the Cape of Good Hope in a storm, cursed and blasphemed. God punished
him and turned his ship over. Some sailors could swear that they
had seen the ghost ship flying with sails up above their heads.
According to the other version (which sounds more realistic),
some of the ship's crew were ill with the plague. So, the ship
was not allowed to enter the port of its destination. Soon the
news about the "dangerous" ship spread all over and
the vessel was sent off from everywhere. Because of the insufficiency
of a source for food and drink, all the seamen of the Dutch ship
died. Out of control, the ship continued roaming along the waves,
and hence its name - the Flying Dutchman.
Some of the stories connected with ships and sailors are incredible
to believe but others have unquestionable evidence categorizing
the ship as "lost". Such a mysterious story is the one
about the two-masted brigantine "Mary Celeste" and its
missing crew of which nothing was heard or found ever again. When
the sailors of "Dei Gratia" spotted the vessel on the
5-th of December, 1872, sailing out of control between the coast
of Portugal and the Azores, they decided to get closer and investigate.
Except for the lifeboat, sextant and chronometer which were missing,
everything seemed to be in order - the crew's belongings were
not touched (money and finery were in their places), berths were
neatly made, fresh water and an abundance of food were present
and the cargo was intact. Even the pipes were left unfinished
on the table! There are plenty of explanations as to what might
have happened to the ship, including fanciful versions of an aggressive
giant octopus or alien abduction. However, the riddle still remains
e) The Wind
Today, seamen who are in for a voyage are wished to "sail
with the wind". In the time of advanced technologies, when
engines and machines operate the ship, this expression carries
the meaning of sailing safely, without problems or accidents at
In the time of sailing crafts, the wind was treated as a divinity
that could predetermine the fate of the ship. On the one hand,
high winds and squalls might cause shipwreck and on the other
- a dead calm could make sailors die from hunger or thirst as
the vessel was unable to move to the nearest source of food and
water without wind. Sailors were so intimidated by this "divinity"
that they would not even dare to mention its name. They were also
forbidden to whistle on board as whistling might bring headwind.
The wind, being of celestial origin, was appeased and thus, diverted
in various ways. The most primary ones included offerings of animals
and even humans but the latter were prohibited with the adoption
of Christianity. The Chinese believe that making paper ships and
letting them into water might mislead the unfavorable wind and
direct it aside.
There is another popular ritual of appeasing the wind which attracts
many onlookers - every time before setting sail the captains of
sailing boats cast their peaked caps overboard.
Of course, not always was the ship thought to be unfavorable.
In calm weather, when the wind was needed to propel the vessel,
sailors did their best to invoke it. Whistling was a good method
but only if it was done masterfully. Another way, used by some
superstitious seafarers, was untying the "three magical knots"
- the first knot brought gentle wind, the second - high wind and
the third - a squall. If these didn't work, the wind had to be
provoked: the cook beat the sails with his ladle and sailors scratched
the mast in order to annoy the wind and persuade it to come. How
naive these beliefs were! Those seamen resemble children who draw
suns on the pavement on a cloudy day to prevent the rain!