As more details emerge of Jose Salvador Alvarenga’s incredible survival story after being lost at sea for 14 months, we are reminded that despite modern technology ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’ still face very real dangers. 100 years ago, crossing the ocean was even more perilous and sailors would take whatever precautions they could to keep safe.
There were many superstitions and it was widely believed that following them was essential if you were to ensure a safe voyage.
Nowadays, it is easy to dismiss such beliefs as nonsense. However, to our seafaring ancestors they were to be taken very seriously. Perhaps they were just a way of allowing sailors to feel they had some control over their fate when completely at the mercy of the cruel sea. Or, perhaps there is some truth in these old rules.
On examining our Titanic records, we have discovered that the doomed ship had broken six cardinal seafaring rules on its fateful maiden voyage.
Sailor superstition #1: Women on board a ship make the sea angry
The header pages from the ship’s passenger list reveal that there were 353 female passengers travelling on the Titanic. The passenger list records the people who boarded at Southampton and Queenstown, but the list of those who boarded at Cherbourg does not survive.
Header page from the Titanic's passenger list, recording the passengers who boarded at Southampton
Sailor superstition #2: It’s unlucky to have a priest on board
A list of the passengers and crew who were supposed drowned can be found in our maritime death records. These record the occupation of each victim, revealing that four of the Titanic’s passengers were Ministers of Religion.
Two of the Ministers of Religion listed in the Maritime death records
Sailor superstition #3: Cutting your hair at sea is bad luck
The list of those who perished in the disaster also shows that there were three Barbers travelling on the Titanic. Two of these were crew members who would have practised their trade on the ship.
One of the Barbers listed in the Maritime death records
Sailor superstition #4: A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck
We’ve uncovered this article in The British Newspaper Archive which states that there were dogs (and a pig!) on board the Titanic:
An article from The Western Times, Saturday 20 April 1912
Sailor superstition #5: People with red hair bring bad luck to a ship
You can find many of the Titanic’s surviving crew members listed in our Merchant Navy Seamen records. You’ll often find a physical description or a photograph included, as is the case with John Alexander Podesta. Podesta worked as a Fireman on the Titanic and his Merchant Navy index card describes his hair colour as being ‘auburn’.
John Podesta's Merchant Navy seamen record
Sailor superstition #6: Flowers are unlucky on board a ship
Another of the Titanic’s Firemen, Charles Rice, also survived and appears in the Merchant Navy records. He was recorded as having a tattoo on his right forearm depicting a basket of flowers.
Charles Rice's Merchant Navy seaman record
Do you think there’s any truth behind superstitions like these? Is there anything you do or avoid doing to bring you luck?