Sir Francis Bacon once remarked, “The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.”
Recently we celebrated Friday the 13th. Did that creep you out? Thirteen has long been associated with bad luck for a long, long time. I bet the first cavemen, when they began scratching lines on their cave walls for the very first calendar said something like this: “Look, Ogmar! It’s that thirteen thing again. Be careful of those saber-toothed tigers.”
People eschew thirteen at many levels. The most common is the conscious decision of rational men and women who design and name buildings to not name the thirteenth floor as the thirteenth floor.
So does that change the reality that the fourteenth floor in buildings is really the thirteenth?
Of course, in the middle of this whole discussion, sailors are no different. Pirates never wanted women on board. I don’t think it was because they didn’t want to be nagged about picking up their dirty underwear. Short and simple, they believed they were bad luck.
There were exceptions, of course. Ann Bonny and Mary Read served on pirate Jack Rackham’s vessel. In fact, they fought valiantly while a very drunk Jack Rackham and his crew cowered below the decks to no avail. How lucky was that? Every sailor should have women of their ilk on board.
Ann made her point shortly before Jack was hanged when she reminded him: “If ye had fought like men, ye wouldn’t die like a dog.”
Sailors generally consider it bad luck to rename ships, but some do it at their own risk. Pirates used to do it all the time. Blackbeard renamed Le Concord de Nantes to the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Bartholomew Roberts renamed all the flagships he used The Royal Fortune. Stede Bonnet actually purchased his pirate ship and renamed it The Revenge. So that superstition thing has no basis at all. Right?
Oh, wait a minute! I just remembered! All those pirates are dead. Hanged or blown to bits while engaging in one of their famous pirate attacks. How lucky was that?
We often ascribe superstition to things we don’t understand. Remember Ogmar and his friends? Superstitions vary by culture, but there are often common themes. A Jonah on ship was one of them. The Bible tells us Jonah was swallowed by a whale. In truth, sailors who considered a sailor bad luck referred to him as a Jonah. And more than one sailor was either thrown overboard or marooned far from home to rid the ship of bad luck.
If bad luck follows some people everywhere then what about days? Is it possible that maybe some days you should just stay in bed? Consider April the 19th. In 2010, the explosion of an oil rig belonging to Deep Water Horizon killed rig workers and spewed oil for eighty-seven days. Five years later, the ferry Sewol sank sending 300 poor souls to their grave. How unlucky was that?
A coincidence? Then explain this! On May 19th, the Mary Rose sank in 1545 taking an estimated 400 plus lives. Four hundred and thirty-four years later the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain collided off Little Tobago, leaving twenty-six dead and hundreds of thousands of tons of crude oil awash in the Caribbean.
But wait! There’s more! Just this past year on May 19th, the Stena Jutlandica collided with a tanker. This time the 1,500 passengers escaped with their lives. How lucky was that? I could go on, but I don’t think I will. I don’t want to push my luck.
There are other nautical superstitions, but you’ll have to wait for my book Uncommon Mariners before you indulge your curiosities. Until then it’s only fair to remind you that if you’re going on a cruise, politely decline the flowers someone sends to your cabin. Just blame it on your allergies; blame it on me. Accept them and I accept no responsibilities for what happens next. Consider yourself forewarned.
What about you? I know you have some superstitions. Share them here. If you dare! Incidentally, you may be relieved to know the next Friday the thirteenth doesn’t come till next May. Being forewarned is being forearmed.