Boating superstitions and good omens to abide by

Ever wondered why cats are good luck on yachts, but it's considered ill fate to step on board with your left foot first? Why female figureheads are so popular on board superyachts, but why it's not advised to wear the colour green? BOAT unpacks some of the most bizarre boating superstitions that have informed the history of seafaring and their origins...

Step onto a boat with your right foot first

Credit: Samuel Schwendener on Unsplash

Best to start off on the right foot – quite literally. A superstition as old as time, it's considered best practice to put your right foot on board first when boarding a yacht. Stepping forward with your left leg first is thought to bring bad luck for the journey ahead. Of course, it's even worse if the captain catches you boarding with your shoes on...

Renaming a boat is bad luck

While this rule thankfully doesn't apply to the superyacht sphere, where renamings happen at a head-spinning rate each time there is a yacht sale, it is considered very bad luck indeed in the smaller boat sector. As legend has it, every vessel name is recorded in the Ledger of the Deep, kept by the God of the Sea, Poseidon (also known as Neptune). It was believed that to change a yacht’s name, it must be stricken from the record, which involves destroying every trace of the boat’s current name – from burgee to anything monogrammed with your yacht's name. To ignore this legend is to risk a terrible fate, such as getting struck by lightning, sinking or worse. Another way around changing the name is to keep a portion of the name, but some sailors are superstitious enough to think this is still tempting the fates.

Cats are good luck on yachts

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While black cats might get a bad rap on land, this superstition sees felines in a more favourable light. British and Irish sailors were known to adopt a “ship’s cat” as it would bring the boat good luck. Cats on ships were believed to have superpowers and be able to predict the weather. But beyond being a lucky charm, they served practical purposes, hunting stowaway rodents and being great companions to the sailors as well. For years, the 90.1-metre Nero was home to a plump, ginger stowaway named Nelson, who even had a chair in the wheelhouse (which he scratched to pieces). Her charter representative recounts a photo of the feline sitting on the capping rail, lapping up the evening sun. Oh, to have seen the sights Nelson has!

The colour green is unlucky on board

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While the colour green is generally regarded as lucky, on boats it certainly isn't a sailor's friend. The superstition has two potential origins: firstly, it is associated with the colour of land, and sailors feared it meant their yacht would run aground. Secondly, they believe it to be linked to the colour of mould, which could corrode the wood of sailing ships and cause the vessel to sink. To avoid any unfortunate fate, it was advised to not wear the colour or have anything green on board.

Female figureheads as a token of good luck

Credit: Stuart Pearce, YachtShot

Female mastheads are thought to be good luck, which explains why so many yacht figureheads are women. These became popular in the 19th century, replacing the previous figurehead of a yacht’s owner or a ferocious animal. Today, the 125.9-metre sailing yacht Koru is distinguishable by her elaborate figurehead made of polished wood. She is wearing a pendant necklace with a symbol some have speculated to be the Māori symbol meaning "koru".

Red skies can be good or bad luck to sailors

“Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning," as the rhyme goes. It has been used for millennia as a forecasting tool to predict the weather and some yachtsmen still take heed to Mother Nature's red-hued signals. Based on the reddish glow of the sky at morning or dusk, which is caused by hazy or cloudy skies, sailors believed they could tell what weather was coming their way. If there is a red sky at night, sunlight must be able to cut clearly from the west without any cloudy hindrances, so the legend goes, and good weather it will be. But if it’s red sky in the morning, clear skies in the east are letting sun break through, which assumes clouds are coming from the west instead and bad weather is on the way.

Appeasing the sea gods

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This superstition is as old as time and traces back to Greek mythology with Amphitrítē, goddess-queen of the sea, and her consort Poseidon (heed the warning from Odysseus in Homer's The Odyssey). Seafarers have long known it's best to keep the Queen of the Sea onside, even if that means performing rituals to appease her. It seems the tradition still bears weight today, evidenced when one of the richest men in Brazil, Eike Batista, attempted to change his fate after he suffered a large personal and financial collapse. As a lot of his recent business explorations were connected to the ocean, Batista chartered a yacht for the ritual and placed 700,000 Brazilian reais into a small vessel decorated with other small offerings.

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