Rules of the Road: Old ‘rules’ a fun part of seafaring lore

Jun 27, 2017 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desvergers

Seafaring is one of the world’s oldest occupations, so it is only natural that in times when inexplicable events have happened, superstitions have played a major role in providing reasons for their occurrence. The uncontrollable nature of the sea has given way to many a nautical lore, each one as curious as the next.

As long sufferers of this column may remember, years ago, when I was a doe-eyed midshipman with illusions of unlimited adventure, I was subjected to an excruciatingly painful class on the intricacies of cargo stowage and stability. My professor, according to his own statements, had been to sea for centuries. His most famous quote: “Boy, I’ve rung more water out of my socks than you’ll sail upon in your lifetime.” That gives you an idea of his personality.   

After the daily (and painful) two-hour class, the highlight of the session was always the last five minutes. This salty old sea captain would entice us with a classic tale centered on the origin of a nautical phrase or superstition. Here are some new ones that you may or may not know.

Red sky at night

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” as the old saying goes. A red sunset indicates a beautiful day to come, while a red sunrise indicates rain and bad weather.

Deathly lexis

At sea, some words must be strictly avoided to ensure the ship and crew’s safe return. These include obvious ones such as “drowned” and “goodbye.” If someone says “good luck” to you, it is sure to bring about bad luck. The only way to reverse the curse is by drawing blood, so usually a good punch in the nose will do.

Lurking sea life

A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death. Dolphins swimming with the ship are a good sign.

Don’t sail on these days

Don’t sail on Thursdays, Fridays, the first Monday in April or the second Monday in August. Fridays have long been considered unlucky days, likely because Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday. Thursdays are bad sailing days because that is Thor’s day, the god of thunders and storms. The first Monday in April is the day Cain slew Abel. The second Monday in August is the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

Superstitious sailors believe that the only good day to set sail is Sunday.

The pirate’s look, is a look for me

A pierced earlobe on a sailor meant that he had sailed around the world or had crossed the equator. Superstitious sailors wore gold hoop earrings because they believed it brought good fortune. Some believed that the gold possessed magic healing powers or that it served as a protective talisman that would prevent the wearer from drowning.  Tattoos were also seen as lucky. Seafarers would usually tattoo a nautical star on their bodies as the North Star represented a signal that they were nearing home.  Cutting one’s hair, nail trimming, and beard shaving were big no-nos.

Don’t change the name of the boat

It’s bad luck to change the name of the boat. Boats develop a life and mind of their own once they are named and christened. If one does rename the boat, one absolutely must have a de-naming ceremony. This ceremony is performed by writing the boat’s current name on a piece of paper, folding the paper and placing it in a wooden box. The box must then be burned. Once the box is destroyed, the ashes must be collected and thrown into the sea.

Avoid gingers

Redheads were thought to bring bad luck to a ship if you happened to encounter one before boarding. However, if you speak to the redhead before they get the chance to speak to you, you’re saved.

Don’t kill an albatross

Seabirds were thought to carry the souls of dead sailors.  It is considered bad luck to kill one. However, it is considered good luck if you see one.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau ( Comments are welcome below.


About Capt. Jake DesVergers

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or

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