Sailor Superstitions

Sailors, Fishermen, and Pirates are a superstitious lot. The origins of many of these superstitions are based in the inherent risks of sailing, and luck, either good or bad, as well as portents and omens that would be given associative meaning in relation to the life of a mariner, sailor, fisherman or a crew in general. Because sailors travel more widely and interact more closely with other cultures, most of the legends and myths have propagated so as to be almost universal throughout the known world.

Bad Luck:

All of the following are seen as sources of ill luck by sailors. A sailor afflicted by bad luck suffers disadvantage (roll twice and take the worst result) on all rolls until the source of the bad luck is removed.

A Jonah:
A “Jonah” is a long-established expression among sailors, meaning a person (either a sailor or a passenger) who is bad luck, which is based on the Biblical prophet Jonah. Sailors experiencing bad luck from an unknown source (or the vagaries of particularly poor weather such as a hurricane or prolonged doldrums) are likely to seek out a “Jonah” to be sacrificed as a scapegoat in an attempt to rid themselves of the ill luck. If there is not an obvious outlier in the crew or passengers, the Jonah may be selected by casting lots. The unfortunate victim will then be cast overboard to join The Drowned.

Anyone who actually bears the given name “Jonah” is guaranteed to be selected for such service. Of course, on the plus side, being so inherently unlucky as to be named Jonah, a character with such a name is immune to all other sources of nautical bad luck.

The Dies Infaustus:
Friday is considered to be an unlucky day by sailors. The most enduring sailing superstition is that it is unlucky to begin a voyage or ‘set sail’ on a Friday. A ship that sets sail on a Friday will be plagued by bad luck (affecting the entire crew) until it next makes port (unless a Jonah can be found).

Albatrosses have been described as “the most legendary of all birds”. Slaying an albatross is among the worst deed a sailor can commit—not only does such an act inflict ill luck on the sailor, but it guarantees that the ship on which that sailor sails shall experience no wind until the sailor is properly punished. The traditional punishment is to wear the slain bird’s corpse around one’s neck until it has rotted completely away. Such punishment will free the ship from its doldrum, but ill luck will remain with the sailor until the albatross is gone. Thus, someone bearing a burden or facing an obstacle is said to have “an albatross around his neck”, the punishment given in the poem to the mariner who killed the albatross.

The head of an albatross being caught with a hook is used as the emblem of the “Cape Horners” (Imperial sailors who have rounded Cape Horn on freighters under sail), and is a popular tattoo among such accomplished sailors. Captains of such ships even received themselves the title “albatrosses” in the Imperial Navy.

Having bananas on a ship, especially on a private boat or fishing yacht, is considered bad luck. The ill luck will cling to whomever brought them onboard and remain until the accursed fruit is abandoned overboard.

It is said that to whistle is to challenge the wind itself, and that to do so will bring about a storm. Anyone whistling aboard a ship will be plagued by bad luck until the next storm.

The Drowned:
Having one of the Drowned aboard a ship is considered bad luck for obvious reasons. This is nonsense, and Imperial law grants full rights of passage to all Drowned citizens. This does not stop professional sailors from being jittery around the Drowned however, and sometimes the threat of bad luck can make the sailor perform just as poorly as the real thing. Sailing crews that are not bound by law will almost never mix the living with the Drowned.

Good Luck:

All of the following are seen as sources of good luck by sailors. A sailor possessed of good luck gains advantage (roll twice and take the better result) on all rolls until the good luck has passed.

Ships Cats:
While in many cultures, a black cat is considered unlucky, sailors consider adopting a black “ship’s cat” to bring good luck. Cats eat rodents, which can damage ropes and stores of grain on board, and they are intelligent animals, so a high level of care was directed toward them to keep them happy. A ship’s cat would also create a sense of home and security to sailors who could be away from home for a long time. Cats were believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Sometimes, fishermen’s wives would keep black cats at home too, in the hope that they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea.

It is lucky if a cat approaches a sailor on deck (good luck until the next dawn or dusk), but unlucky if it only came halfway, and then retreated (ill luck until the next dawn or dusk). A ship that set’s sail without a ship’s cat will be plagued by bad luck (affecting the entire crew) until a cat is acquired. Thus cats are often among the most sought-after plunder during pirate raids. If a ship’s cat falls or is thrown overboard, it will summon a terrible storm to sink the ship and if the ship is able to survive, it will be cursed with nine years of bad luck.

Other beliefs include: if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it means a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezes it means rain; and if it is frisky it means wind.

It is often considered lucky to touch the collar of a sailor’s suit. This is bupkis, but plenty of sailors swear by it anyways and will make a point of touching another sailor’s collar before doing anything difficult.

St. Elmo’s Fire:
Saint Erasmus of Formiae may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire”. Thus, Saint Elmo’s Fire is usually a sign of good luck, but because it is an effect of electricity in the air, portending storms, and interfering with compass readings, it always comes at the worst possible time. Any sailor seeing St. Elmo’s Fire on their ship gains good luck until whatever storm brought the fire has passed.

Sailor Tattoos

Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home. Sailor tattoos serve as a visual way to preserve the culture of the maritime superstitions. Sailors believe that certain symbols and talismans will help them in when facing certain events in life; these symbol can attract good luck or avert bad luck, depending on the situation.

Pig or Hen:
Pigs and Hens are not capable of swimming, but it is believed that the gods will look down upon a shipwreck and see an animal not capable of swimming and would take them into his hand and place them on land. A sailor with a Pig or Hen tattoo is considered lucky in all checks related to surviving a shipwreck, but unlucky on all Swimming skill checks.

A Skull is the sign of the dead and the drowned. A sailor branded with a skull has accepted the inevitability of his eventual fate. A sailor with a Skull tattoo is considered lucky when making any Swim check or check to interact with the Drowned, but is plagued by the threat of death, suffering bad luck on all Profession (Sailor) skill checks.

Nautical Star:
nautical-star.pngSailors believe that wearing the symbol of the North Star (or Nautical Star or compass rose) will help them to find their way home. A sailor with a Nautical Star tattoo is considered lucky on all checks related to finding his home port.

Pirate’s Brand:
Pirates caught by the Imperial Navy or the East India Trading Company are always branded with the letter ‘P’ with a hot-iron, to make them easier to identify should they escape. Any sailor bearing the Pirate’s Brand automatically gains 1 point of Infamy, and is considered lucky when attempting to influence the reactions of other pirates, but is unlucky in all attempts to influence law-abiding members of the Imperial Navy, Imperial Merchant Marines, the East India Trading Company, or Privateers bearing Imperial letters of marque.

Other Common Tattoos:
Other common nautical tattoos include anchors, various aquatic beasts (particularly merfolk, krakens, dolphins, or sirens), holy symbols of various deities, or marks identifying them as belonging to a particular ship’s crew, armada, company, or orgnization (the most famous being the hooked albatross of the Cape Horners). What, if any, luck such emblems may bring is up to the GM.


It has been a long naval tradition to initiate pollywogs, sailors who have never crossed the Equator, into the “Kingdom of Neptune” upon their first crossing of the Equator. The Line-crossing ceremony commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator. Its practices invoke good luck on the new sailor.

The tradition may have originated with ceremonies when passing headlands, and become a “folly” sanctioned as a boost to morale, or have been created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs.

After crossing the line, Pollywogs receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his court (usually including his first assistant Davy Jones and her Highness Amphitrite and often various dignitaries, who are all represented in costume by the highest ranking seamen), who officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a beauty contest of men dressing up as women. Afterwards, some wogs may be “interrogated” by King Neptune and his entourage. During the ceremony, the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly embarrassing ordeals (such as wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees; being swatted with short lengths of rope; kissing the Royal Baby’s belly coated with axle grease, etc.), largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks. Once the ceremony is complete, a Pollywog receives a certificate declaring his new status.

Sailor Superstitions

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