7th December 2001
I got talking to the Mate again today and we hit on the subject of superstitions. Seamen are very superstitious, religious or both. When you live and work in a hostile environment where so much is beyond your control, and often beyond your comprehension, then it’s easy to see why you might not want to put all your eggs in the logic basket, and put a few in the superstition and religion baskets too, just in case.
The mate was telling me some of the many superstitions fishermen have about luck and fishing. Some believe that if the fishing has been good, they don’t wash their clothes for fear of washing away the luck. He said that he knew a Fishing Master* who wore the same clothes for an entire trip of four or five months! The idea of washing luck away extends to the net itself. He told me of a trawler about to leave port with brand new fishing gear, and the captain terrified that the gear was unlucky, paid a prostitute to come on board to pee on the new net to bring luck. I expect that’s what he told his wife anyway.
I remembered a couple of superstitions I’d heard before, such as never whistling at sea for fear of whistling up the wind, or never saying rabbit – oops, I just said it, or typed it anyway, does that count?
The Mate told me about witches, and how they often get the blame for misfortunes on fishing boats. To ward them off, various charms are used including strings of garlic on the bridge and broom sticks tied upside down to the masts. Come to think of it I remember Mum insisting we made a hole in the bottom of our eggshells ‘to stop the witches going to sea’. So maybe there is something in it, but if they are sailing out here in egg shells then surely the broomsticks are no use on the masts.
It seems witches and bad luck could be countered with garlic, broomsticks and prostitute’s wee, but when things go really wrong it is standard practise to ask God for help. Now, God gets lots of calls, and so he has implemented a kind of call management system. My understanding is that he has employed some ‘Virgins’ and Saints to whom he has delegated key responsibilities.
‘Thank you for calling God. Please press 1 for flood and famine, 2 for natural disasters, 3 for reservations & sales…and so on until you get to … Please press 9 for peril at sea, or press 0 to repeat.’
You press 9 and get put through to Virgin Carmen – her portfolio contains ‘peril to those at sea’, but she is on another call. Apparently some old duffer is having trouble with his outboard, and the Virgin is talking him through some motor maintenance.
‘Your call is important to us but we are receiving a higher than normal volume of calls at the moment. You have been placed in a queue and an operator will be with you shortly.’
While you are on hold they play Eternal Father. At this point, when both the Virgins and the prostitutes have let you down, and your broom stick is out of petrol, you are left with no other choice than to transmit a distress call and seek rescue from the nearest ship or Coastguard agency.
7th December 2017
*There are often two ‘captains’ on a fishing boat. The designated captain has overall responsibility for the ship and crew, but sometimes there is a fishing captain or fishing master who has responsibility for the fishing. Often the fishing master will be the Mate, and is older and wiser than the Captain – that was the case on the Santa Maria.