Lobsterman Rob Martin was out with a crewman years ago when the fellow tried to gaff a seagull that landed on the boat.
Martin told him to cut it out. Not only was it illegal, it was bad luck. Moments later, the stern man was gone.
“He went flying out the back of the boat,” said Martin, adding that he told him “I told you so” after fishing him out of the water.
Martin is not superstitious, for instance he ignores the “no pigs on the boat” adage (they are supposed to be bad luck because they can’t swim) so will blithely eat a ham sandwich. But he does have talismans and routines to help a trip go right; every time he leaves the dock he puts his hand on the tail of a mermaid painting he has in his wheelhouse (she is close to a Buddha on his dashboard) and runs through the names of people he loves (plus his dogs).
“We make it back to the dock every day,” he said.
Knock on wood.
In celebration of Halloween, we reached out to fishermen to see if they have beliefs that may seem odd to landlubbers.
“OMG, fishermen are superstitious,” said Sandy Keese, who comes from a fishing family and has sons and a grandson who fish.
For example, no “bad” women aboard, which was reinforced when a woman she knew visited a boat, after which the fuel tank was mistakenly filled with gasoline rather than diesel.
The “no women aboard” superstition has persisted for centuries, supposedly because women make the sea gods angry or jealous. But at least on Cape few if any fishermen have paid much attention. Fred Bennett, who fished for six decades or more, was always happy to take a woman aboard, as are pretty much all Chatham captains.
Stephanie Sykes, who has crewed on several boats, has never run into the no-women aboard superstition.
“The only superstition I have ever really seen enforced is the ‘no bananas’ rule. I’ve seen Scott (MacAllister) take someone’s banana while they were eating it and throw it over,” Sykes said.
MacAllister, one of the younger captains in the fleet, also isn’t afraid to fire a gun over the side to get rid of evil spirits or “bad juju” when the fish aren’t coming. Tuna fishermen sometimes throw quarters, or even dollars, when the big fish aren’t biting.
MacAllister also isn’t a fan of white lighters on a boat—so if you are going to smoke best bring an orange one—although he isn’t sure where that comes from. MacAllister’s crew doesn’t like to see double rainbows, associating them with bad trips.
Retired Captain Mike Anderson (who had current shellfish constable Renee Gagne onboard for many years) backs up the banana sentiment. He hasn’t seen it much on commercial vessels, but says it is taken seriously by many charter captains. In the old days he remembers some captains sneaking aboard competitors’ boats and hiding bananas in drawers to try and sabotage the trip.
“They were fervent about it,” he said.
Captain Greg Connors has heard a fair number of superstitions, but there is only one that he really adheres to. Well, two.
“I don’t let guys flip hatch covers upside down because the boat could follow suit,” Connors said. “And I don’t let anyone whistle because you’ll whistle up the wind.” Captain Domenic Santoro, also of Chatham, agrees on the hatch covers.
There are many other superstitions that fishermen have heard, but not necessarily paid attention to: If you have an earring or a lot of tattoos you won’t drown; don’t bring a black bag on a boat (looks like a body bag); don’t say goodbye or good luck.
Anderson remembers a few more. For example, don’t change the name of a boat (which he did every time) and don’t launch on Friday.
Another one that has stayed with him is you can’t paint your boat blue. He remembers because a wealthy man was having a boat built by a skilled boatbuilder in town. The man wanted the boat to be painted blue and the builder refused.
“The guy had to relent, even though it was his boat,” said Anderson.
Although many superstitions make no real sense, a few seem to be grounded in a semblance of fact. The concern about bananas appears to have several origins. One is that bananas bunches sometimes hid poisonous spiders. Another is that they cause other produce to rot quicker. The third is that vessels carrying bananas had to travel quickly to avoid spoilage, so couldn’t stop to fish.
And the name for anyone thought to mess with the good karma of a trip? A “Jonah,” as in the Biblical character who incurred God’s wrath, brought on a huge storm, was thrown off the boat by sailors trying to save themselves, and then was swallowed by a whale. If a trip goes bad, even in much less dramatic ways, a visitor onboard might get a new nickname—but not another invitation.
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.