Understanding Boating Superstitions (Knock On Wood)

April 13, 2012

Let’s face it…boaters are a superstitious bunch. You’ve got to believe that storied history goes all the way back to the days of the earliest ocean-going vessels, when everything from bad weather to scurvy were connected to various perceived transgressions by crewmembers and (more likely) unknowing passengers. String enough of those coincidences together, and the word spreads quickly that something as innocent as bringing a banana onboard can wreak havoc on a voyage that would otherwise be smooth sailing.

Whether you view boating superstitions as solemn, don’t-ever-mess-them laws, or if you get a chuckle out of the seemingly outrageous notions that have sprung up over the years, they are part of nautical folklore. And, being notoriously nostalgic, those of us with a love for boating and the water tend to embrace even the nuttier superstitions—even if it’s done with a sly wink of the eye.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most-popular, boat-related myths that still rule the seas even today.


If you head down to any of Florida’s coastal fishing villages in search of a fishing charter, there’s one thing you need to remember. Leave the bananas at home. That’s real bananas, banana nut muffins and even Banana Boat sunscreen. You’re even asking for trouble if you show up in Fruit of the Loom underwear. And even if, for some reason, you feel like ignoring the no-bananas rule that exists aboard nearly all fishing charters—let’s say you smuggle aboard a banana smoothie—don’t plan on coming home with many trophy fish. Of course, there’s nothing but anecdotal evidence to prove this is true, but you’ll hear those anecdotes walking every dock from Pensacola to Islamorada.

History: Looking past the obvious things like cartoon injuries caused by slipping on a discarded peel, the more likely source of the banana superstition is that ocean-going vessels would stop at tropical islands for provisions during their months-long excursions. In addition to fresh water and other necessities, they would frequently take on crates of bananas. Good source of potassium aside, these crates nearly always came with the added bonus of deadly spiders, snakes and other critters that don’t mix well in the close-confines of a boat.


As if you didn’t have enough to think about when considering a name for your boat, you will probably get an earful from some wise mystic of the sea (the guy in the marina slip next to yours) about the hazards of changing the name of a boat that’s been previously named. Fortunately, since it’s a long shot that you and the prior owner BOTH dreamed of owning a boat called “My Pretty Petunia,” there are certain ceremonial steps you can take to avoid offending the sea gods. Not surprisingly, the ceremony revolves around high-quality domestic sparkling wine (only use the French stuff if you’re anxious to help THEIR economy rebound). Get rid of all evidence of the boat’s previous name. Just draw a line through the name on all logbooks and maintenance records. Make sure all traces of the name are gone from the transom. Notify your local boating law enforcement of the name change as required, and apply your new carefully chosen new name to the boat. Invite your family and friends, and distribute plastic glasses (bare feet and broken glass do not mix). Unless you’re renaming a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, best to just pour a generous portion of bubbly over the bow instead of smashing the bottle Queen Elizabeth-style. When everyone’s glasses are full, say something like: “For thousands of years, we have gone to sea, and we have called our vessels by name. For all that have gone before us, we humbly raise a glass in their honor and ask for blessings in the name of YOUR BOAT NAME.” If you’re into flowery (and overly long) ceremonies, a quick Internet search will reveal plenty

History: This business about it being bad luck to rename a boat actually has a pretty reasonable explanation. Back in the day, when sailing vessels would travel to far-flung ports-of-call, boats and crews would carry a certain reputation. Good reputations meant easy, uncontested passage into friendly harbors. Changing a boat’s name could easily raise suspicions simply because it wasn’t recognized.


• Have you ever known anyone who threw salt over their left shoulder? That’s an old pirate trick to “keep the devil at bay.” The bay, of course, is literally where they wanted the devil to stay as they headed out to sea.

• Have you ever “knocked on wood” to prevent bad luck? That came from sailors thumping the hulls of their wooden ships to check for rotten areas. This is also the origin of the phrases “ship shape” and “touch wood.” It all comes down to having a boat that will hold together during a voyage.

• As perhaps the easiest superstition to understand, the form of a naked woman on the bow was said to calm the seas and guide the vessel to safety. If you’ve been out at sea for months on end with a ship full of hygienically challenged men, surely any naked woman aboard would seem like good luck.

• Dramatic bodily embellishments such as tattoos, brands and piercings have long been thought to ward off evil spirits. The wilder the design, the better it allegedly worked.

• It’s a no-no to whistle anywhere aboard a boat, for fear that you will summon bad weather. This is where the phrase “whistling up a storm” comes from.