Weird Fishing Superstitions (Don’t Bring a Banana on Board)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial fishing is the deadliest job in America. It may also have the richest culture of magical rituals and taboos. That makes perfect sense.

In general, we do what we can to control our fates. In certain areas of life, the cause-effect relationships are quite clear. If you punch your boss, you will be fired. But on the open sea, when so much is unpredictable and the stakes are so high—a rogue wave could overturn your vessel at any time—you’re left guessing at what works and what doesn’t. That leads to superstition. (Which is not always a bad thing.)

“Among just about everyone I know who’s spent a lot of time at sea, there’s always the sense that there are controlling forces that we really don’t have any knowledge of,” Captain Dave Preble, a fisherman from Narragansett, Rhode Island, and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, told me. “I think you’ll find among commercial fisherman that they have enormous faith in their ability and equally enormous faith in their bad luck.”

So in writing chapter 3, about the superstitious rituals we use to alter our luck, I looked to commercial fishermen. Keith Colburn, the captain of the Wizard and a star of Deadliest Catch, told me about his litany of rules (always having Cup Noodles on hand, for example). And through hundreds of phone calls and emails I reached out to other fishermen (and women) in Alaska and New England and elsewhere. I didn’t have space to tell all of their stories in the book, but as a reference I thought I’d list some of the most common superstitions they mentioned. Here they are from (roughly) most to least common. Some may be highly regional.

• Don’t leave a hatch cover upside down.
• Don’t whistle on board.
• Don’t bring a suitcase or a black bag on board.
• Don’t bring a banana on board.
• Don’t even wear yellow.
• Don’t allow women on board.
• Don’t leave port on a Friday.
• Don’t mention four-hooved animals (pigs, horses, etc.).
• Hang coffee mugs with the opening facing inboard.
• Don’t comment on good luck, or the possibility of bad luck.
• Dolphins are a good omen. Sharks are a bad omen.
• Don’t kill an albatross or a gull.
• Don’t change the name of a vessel.
• Leaving on Sunday is good luck.
• Don’t wear green. (It makes the boat seek land.)
• Don’t say “rabbit.” (No clue.)
• If you meet a minister before sailing, turn around and go home.
• Hang garlic over the galley port hole.
• Don’t use blue paint (particularly on a lobster boat).
• Don’t wear a hat in the galley.
• Don’t step onto a boat with your left foot.
• Don’t coil a rope or stir a pot counter-clockwise.
• Don’t bring an umbrella on board.
• Don’t make pea soup.
• Toss the first fish back. (Or kiss it.)
• Don’t use the number 13.
• Turn starboard first after backing away from the dock.
• Don’t bring honeybears on board.
• Having a virgin pee on a new net is good luck.

If you’re a sailor or fisherman, let me know of your favorite superstitions—of yours or others’—in the comments.

Update: One fish biologist I’d spoken to just emailed to say, “On Sunday [the day of this post] I was rescued by Coast Guard Woods Hole and someone actually asked me if I had a banana on board. Which we did not.”

25 thoughts on “Weird Fishing Superstitions (Don’t Bring a Banana on Board)

  1. Good Luck with your new book Matthew. We need more researchers and writers such as yourself to place a positive plus mark next to superstitions. They are wrongly ignored by science and academia. You are showing that they can easily be linked to health, happiness and sanity. Keep up your good work.

  2. No bananas on board! I will not even eat a banana the morning of a trip. I will not bring trail mix with dried bananas, nor will I bring any kind of banana nut bread. However, Banana Boat brand sunscreen is acceptable.

    You may rename a vessel, however, if you do, you must hold a ceremony prior that does not mention the new name, and you must have a re-christening for the vessel that does not mention the old name.

  3. There are some good ones in South East Asia and Africa where fishing is part of the religion. On one island if you hook a shark you cut the line because they are sacred and to make fish bite you curse at them.

  4. You want the reason behind the bananas? and Always have fried chicken on the boat and if you eat it leave one piece in the box.

  5. Don’t bring a women on board? If you did a survey of charter boat captains they will tell you that 80 percent of the time a women will catch the biggest fish.Also men have a chemical in there body’s fish don’t like.An a women doesn’t produce this chemical.

  6. Don’t cut hair or nails on board.
    A woman on board is bad luck, but a naked woman on board is good luck. (figureheads are a result of this)
    If you meet a priest (or minister) on the way to the boat, it’s bad luck. But if you speak to him first, that cancels the bad luck.

    • I heard it was because a poisonous spider used to hide in th bunches of bananas and if the crew of the ships importing them got bit by one they’d usually die. I think that’s the reason but I could be wrong

      • My dad worked as a longshoreman before getting seaman’s papers back int he 1930’s. some of the jobs involved unloading “Fruiters”. He said that one of the occupational hazards was spiders because they didn’t spray of dip the bunches before loading them.

  7. One of my superstitions is bring sugar babies on board and eat some throw some in the water and stick one on the end of your hook

  8. I keep a shot glass on the boat and always ask fisherman of the past to bring the fish to my lines and give them a toast by pouring a bit of Jack Daniels Whiskey in the glass that stays there during the complete fishing trip. If it evaporates I add more and welcome their spirits again. Seems to work great for me. ! So well I named my boat Old No.7 !

  9. From what i have seen most oil skins worn on commercial fishing trawlers tend to be bright yellow…this would seem to fly in the face of point number five.

  10. I always take the change in my pocket and throw it overboard on the way out of the harbor to honor the fish gods.

    The reason for the banana not to be on a boat is sailing vessels hauling bananas would be overloaded and many were
    The bananas would have spiders in the them that were poisonous and crewmembers would be bitten sand die at see

    • Funny you mention the change…I tried to create good luck before by throwing three heads-up pennies overboard. One for the capt, one for the mate and one for the ship

  11. I have worked on-and-off for years as a commercial crabber (blue crabs, NC) and have heard of many superstitions…one of the major ones being: If your hat flies off while fishing or steaming to another location DO NOT turn around to retrieve it…my capt said ‘If you do that in the ocean, people die’ True I crab in the Albemarle and surrounding sound systems (so it’s never as jacked-up as the ocean) I am guessing that the hat-superstition comes from the fact that in order to turn your vessel around you will be side-to at some point. And we all know how sketchy side-to can be in certain situations…
    Just my personal thoughts!

    Outer Banks, NC

  12. U must throw a quarter in to honor the fish gods! Smaller peices change will insult them and ruin your trip.

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