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Beware the Witches and Dimwits

Only those skippers with a taste for misfortune fail to follow boating’s superstitions.
web_Brett Affrunti

In the spirit of the Halloween season, I want to share a scary tale that brought me face-to-face not just with witches and goblins, but also with the very sea gods themselves.

It all began with a phone call, from which I emerged horrified. Appalled to the point of being speechless. I was, in the British vernacular, gobsmacked.

My friend Jon had acquired a new-to-him trawler yacht, and I had asked him when he planned to christen it, thinking I needed to find a suitable gift for the event.

“Nah, I’m not gonna bother,” he said, sending me into my shocked state before adding, “I’m going to save the champagne for us to drink.”

Jon not only was going to sneer at one of the most sacred of boating customs, but he also was going to change the yacht name as well. I can understand that keeping Mama’s Mink probably wasn’t wise, but just taking a rag of acetone and wiping that name off the transom without any ceremony would surely test the gods.

As a longtime boat owner and the son of a mariner, I have always faithfully christened my yachts. My first 8-foot pram was ceremoniously sanctified with Coca-Cola, my preferred beverage, and the sea gods not only understood but approved because I just wasn’t ready for champers.

I don’t go out of my way to avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks, and my black cat regularly crosses my path. Ladders? I walk under them regularly in boatyards. I am not particularly superstitious.

Except around boats. The rules for christening a boat would take pages to explain, but, at bare minimum, there must be some sort of “fair winds and fine seas to her crew” invocation accompanied by the traditional crack-splash of champagne on the bow.

My early years were spent around wooden boats, when the heavy bronze bow fitting would easily shatter even a thick champagne bottle, but the advent of fiberglass has also brought precut champagne bottles (, $14) that won’t crack the hull and will result in a fizzy splash on the important first swing to satisfy Neptune.

Since we’re following The Traditions, you do need to replace the ribbon on that breakable bottle with a red one, because everyone—everyone!—knows the color red wards off witches.

And speaking of witches, you should never christen your boat (or even set out) on a Friday because that’s when witches hold their gatherings. That reality, of course, is an excellent excuse for taking off on Thursday for a long weekend aboard. Ships for years left at one minute past midnight on Saturday morning for that very reason.

Don’t believe in this hokum? Consider this: The only ocean liner that had no christening ceremony was the Titanic.

Some superstitions of the sea would be easy for Jon, my heathen friend, to follow, such as never taking a violin on board, never opening an umbrella on board, and never stepping aboard with your left foot.

It might be harder for him to remember that you always turn a loaf of bread over before cutting a slice, or a ship will be lost somewhere. Crush eggshells into tiny pieces, or demons will use them as little boats to pursue your yacht. And I can’t even begin to list the woes facing a yacht where a saltshaker is overturned. Throwing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder (where the Devil lurks) may not save you.

Some traditions actually make sense, like never allowing a suitcase aboard, not only because doing so foretells a bad voyage, but also because suitcases are damn hard to stow. Flowers aboard are an omen of funerals, so you’ll want to replace the little orchid (even a plastic one) in your mai tai with a little parasol. Oh, wait, no umbrellas aboard. Buck up, matey, and guzzle your tropical drinks without frilly garnishes.

One superstition that is easily understood is that it is extremely bad luck to spit to windward. This may be an old wives’ tale, but the logic makes sense: Anyone stupid enough to spit to windward is going to cause endless problems far beyond having a wet face.

As you get ready to clear the harbor on an adventure, you can exorcise all bad luck from your vessel and make peace with the gods by spitting to leeward, preferably with a mouthful of rum.

I’m just hoping I can get Jon to spit off the leeward side of his boat before I join him for a cruise.

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Passagemaker magazine.