Jackspeak – Superstitions

Mark Nelson

Long before there was a Navy, mariners were prone to believe in superstitions deemed to bring either good luck or misfortune. Superstitions still exist today, and whether they carry any veracity is simply a matter of opinion.

For example, sailors tend to avoid clinking glasses in a toast as there is a superstition that when a glass rings, it tolls the death of a sailor. Thus, any ringing glass is immediately stopped. Similarly, sailors avoid toasting with water, as superstition states this will cause the person toasted to drown.

To whistle up a wind was an ancient naval superstition that said whistling would cause the wind to increase. Thus, whistling is normally frowned upon in a warship, as it is thought it may bring about stormy weather. Traditionally, only ship’s cooks were allowed to whistle because if you could hear them whistling, you knew they weren’t consuming the rations. In the case of a sailing ship beset by doldrums, sticking a knife in the mast in the direction of the preferred wind was thought to bring the desired breeze.

Somewhat of superstition and marked by an adage, ‘Red sky in morning – sailor’s warning. Red sky at night – sailor’s delight’ meant a red sky in the morning portended bad weather, and a red sky in the evening meant good weather was to come. Real meteorological reasons give truth to this adage, in that a red sunrise might mean a high-pressure system associated with good weather had passed to the east. A red sky at night might indicate a high-pressure front and stable air coming in from the west.

Superstitions abound in the building and launching of vessels. For good luck, a new ship has a coin placed under its keel as it is laid down. In addition, a coin is placed under the mast of a ship when the mast is erected in a mast stepping ceremony. This is done to bless the ship and give it good luck. When a ship is christened, a bottle of champagne is traditionally broken over the bow. Superstition portends bad luck for any ship where the bottle does not break on the first strike.

Sailing on Friday was often feared to bring bad luck to a ship’s voyage. However, in the modern age, ships do not overtly avoid sailing on a Friday, especially since ships have done it and disaster did not ensue. Still, there is an oft-told tale of the fate of HMS Friday, a version of which was even featured in Reader’s Digest magazine. The tale goes something like this: “Years ago, the Royal Navy attempted to dispel the superstition that beginning a voyage on a Friday would bring bad luck. They decided to commission a ship named HMS Friday to prove this belief as false. Her keel was laid on a Friday, she was launched on a Friday, and she set sail on her maiden voyage on Friday the 13th, under the command of Captain James Friday. She was never seen or heard from again.”

This legend is a classic urban myth, as there has never been a Royal Navy ship of that name. Still, the tale is frequently retold in many variations. Thus, the superstition lives on!

You will find over 4,000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

The author of Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy and Whiskey 601, Mark Nelson developed a love of the Navy’s language and lifestyle over his 26-year career in the service. After retiring as a Chief Petty Officer Second Class, he now works as a library systems specialist at Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg, Man.

Follow Mark on Twitter @4marknelson

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