This guest post was written by Becky Fitzula. Becky, although an NC State graduate, has fallen into ranks as the Public Communications Technician at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS). She has spent most of her time digging through the archives to discover the rich history surrounding IMS, but on occasion she has been allowed to see the light of day. This post documents one such experience of life on the water at IMS.
“Find a penny, pick it up. All day long, you’ll have good luck.” This little ditty and many other superstitions may have an effect on how people behave. Watermen are no exception: in fact, they might be a more superstitious bunch. If you have ever lived by the water then you might know of a superstition or two. But, have you ever heard the one about not bringing a banana on a boat? It’s a superstition rooted in centuries of men being on the water. I found out the hard way that bananas on boats are bad luck when I was invited on a shark tagging trip to help with a long-term shark survey off eastern North Carolina.
I quickly jumped aboard. I packed up sunscreen, hat, food, and water. Off we sailed to lay lines and bring in some sharks. The first set of 100 hooks hit the water. We let them soak and pulled them out, but nary a shark. SKUNKED! Strange, these shark tagging trips have been done for over 40 years and this never happens. The crew began questioning, “Where were all the sharks?” They decided to change locations before setting the second set of 100 hooks. We waited. SKUNKED again! The chatter started again, and someone said loudly, “I hope no one brought a banana on the boat.” My ears perked up: Banana, I have a banana in my lunch. What’s wrong with having a banana on board? My head is swirling and I sheepishly ask, “Why?” No answer, but everyone agreed bananas are bad luck. Before I finish my story about the luck that comes along with this particular fruit on board a seaworthy vessel, here are a few other superstitions I found along the way.
Top 5 Watermen Superstitions
It has been told that if you whistle or sing into the wind while on a boat a storm will surely follow. Some believe this was because whistling on board would “raise a gale.” Others believe that since whistling into the wind is nearly impossible, if you did whistle, you would be rewarded with a storm.
2. Tattoos and earrings
People who spend time on the water recognize that sailors with an earring and/or tattoo won’t drown. This tale is rooted in the fact that when sailors used to travel to new lands and meet new people, they would often get tattooed or pierced by the locals to show off their adventures. In addition, these sailors would gain some luck from participating in the local culture and customs.
3. Women on boats
Having women on a boat can bring bad luck, due to women making the sea angry or jealous. This superstition is also rooted in the fact that if a woman was present on board a ship, sailors would often be distracted from their duties and the ship would not run smoothly. Contrary to the aforementioned superstition, it is said that a naked woman would calm the seas. So, that is why ships would often have a topless woman on the bow.
4. Suitcases and black bags
Having black bags or suitcases on fishing vessels is said to bring death or illness. This superstition was played out in Alaska on the crab fishing boats that take on the Bering Sea. When film crews tried to board the crab boats for the filming of the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, they were asked to leave their suitcases, camera cases, and duffle bags on the dock for superstitious reasons. This is because some watermen believed that suitcases and black bags harbored death or illness and therefore should not be allowed on ships.
Now back to my personal favorite superstition, bananas and boats; it has been said that having bananas on boats is bad luck. There are many stories supporting this folklore, ranging from rotting bananas releasing methane gas, which could kill a sailor if trapped in the hull of a ship, to the banana peel causing the crew to slip and fall on the deck. However, neither of these answered why one would not catch fish with a banana on board. So, I kept searching and came across the story of early cargo boats transporting bananas to other parts of the world, having to travel too fast to keep the bananas fresh. Hence, the watermen did not have time to drop nets or lines in the water to catch fish. Now that sounds more like a genuine reason.
So back to the shark trip, I remained silent about my contraband while we lay the third and final set of 100 hooks out. I anxiously watched as they started winching the line back in and (bam) a shark. I am giddy, so excited in fact that I blurted out, “Look, we caught a shark even with a banana on board!” Needless to say, I have not been invited back on any shark tagging trips since.