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Archaeological Papers

Odyssey In Depth

The research vessel Odyssey Explorer works above shipwreck sites around the world

Odysey's 251' research vessel the Odyssey Explorer.


With over 40 years of experience, Vice President Roy Truman shares his immense knowledge of the sea - both technical and theoretical - with the crew.


While at sea, calm weather can quickly turn hostile. Some sailors believe misfortune can be avoided by manipukating their actions and ahering to long-standing traditions while at sea.

Strange at Sea:

Maritime Myths and Superstitions

Modern shipwreck exploration relies on extensive research and the utilization of cutting-edge technology. Odyssey employs a world-class team of researchers, project managers, archaeologists and other shipwreck professionals that together have discovered more shipwrecks than any other organization in the world. All operations aboard the ships are methodically planned which is one of the major reasons why the team has had tremendous success in our deep-ocean expeditions.

Technology has evolved leaps and bounds since the earliest vessels navigated the seas many centuries ago. While most sailors today have a deep respect for the power of the sea, hundreds of years ago maritime travel was an even riskier endeavor with limited communication, navigational tools and weather forecasting. In order to improve their chances for success, ancient sailors believed in various superstitions. Today, most of these practices are considered outdated, but many modern mariners continue to acknowledge the traditions of yesteryear.

“Redheaded crew members are bad luck, but a redheaded man whistling is very bad luck! So I try not to whistle,” says Odyssey Project Manager (and redhead) Aaron Rogerson. “The wearing of green sweaters by crew members is also considered bad luck by some captains.”

“Aside from redheads, in the days of yore, it was believed that it is bad luck to have women on board a ship,” added Odyssey Vice President & Director of Marine Operations Roy Truman.

While maritime folk lore denotes that people with red hair bring bad luck on board ships, it is believed that if you speak to a redhead before he or she speak to you, then you can alleviate the misfortune. The same superstition and reversal holds true for flat-footed people. Whistling on board is believed to stir up the wind. Severe weather has sunk many of history’s mightiest ships so it’s no wonder the crew prefers not to whistle while passing their time on board! Lastly, many old-fashioned mariners believed that a woman on board a ship would anger the sea, while a nude woman will calm the sea. This is why many ship mastheads are of a naked woman.

Some other maritime superstitions, shared by the Odyssey crew include the belief that one should step onto the ship with one’s right foot and that dolphins swimming in front of the ship are good luck.

“One of the more interesting superstitions is the belief that bananas on board will bring disaster. This superstition originated in the 1700s during the height of the Spanish colonial South Atlantic and Caribbean trading empire. Many of the ships that sank during that time were carrying a cargo of bananas,” explained Odyssey President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Gordon.

Another reason sailors believed that bananas were a portent of evil was the high death rate of those on board ships carrying bananas. This was particularly prevalent aboard slave ships. Bananas that fermented gave off methane gas that would then become trapped below deck. Anyone in the hold, including cargoes of imprisoned humanity, would succumb to the poisoned air, and anyone trying to climb down into the hold to help them would fall prey to the dangerous gas. Meanwhile, one of the better known dangers associated with bananas at sea, is the species of spider with a lethal bite that likes to hide in bunches of bananas. Crewmen suddenly dying of spider bites after bananas are brought aboard certainly would be considered a bad omen resulting in the cargo being tossed into the sea.

Starting voyages on certain days is considered bad luck. These days include any Friday, December 31, the first Monday of April or the second Monday of August. Most of these superstitions originate from biblical stories: Christ was crucified on a Friday; Judas Iscariot hanged himself on December 31; Cain slew Able on the first Monday in April; and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed on the second Monday in August.

Cats have also played a role in many maritime superstitions. Their behavior on board was also believed to be useful in predicting weather. Sailors believed that if a cat walked up to them it would bring good luck but if it approached them and then retreated, misfortune would follow. If while on board, a cat licked its fur against the grain, a hailstorm was imminent, if the cat sneezed, rain was on the way, and if it was frisky, the wind would soon blow. Some sailors believed cats could incite storms with the magic stored in their tails.

Other animals including particular birds were thought to bestow either bad or good fortune. Swallows seen at sea signified good luck while curlews and cormorants were bad luck. And killing a gull, dolphin or albatross was especially troubling as these creatures were believed to hold the soul of deceased sailors.

The color black was and still is associated with death and many maritime superstitions advise one to avoid the color. Among these: it’s bad to carry your belongings in a black bag and priests bring bad luck due to their black robes and because they perform funeral services. Flowers are also bad luck on board because of their association with funerals. The one exception to the black rule is black cats which are thought to bring good luck at sea.

Some maritime traditions dictate what sailors should do before setting off on a voyage. There is a belief that a stolen piece of wood mortised into the keel of the ship brings good luck and will allow the ship to sail faster. Some mariners also believe that a silver coin placed under the masthead will ensure a successful voyage. From the centuries-old practice of offering wine to the gods to bring good luck derived the modern tradition of pouring the libation onto the deck. Interestingly, sailors do not appreciate someone wishing them “good luck” before a voyage as it is believed to be an omen. It is believed that the curse could be avoided by drawing blood, usually from a punch to the nose!

While at sea, one should never throw stones into the water as it is disrespectful to the sea and will stir up the waves. And a mariner should avoid looking back once a voyage has commenced because it indicates he is not truly prepared to begin the journey which will attract bad luck.

Some other commons practices among ancient sailors at sea included not trimming hair or nails as this was believed to anger Neptune, the god of the sea and water; never wearing a deceased sailors clothing; instead of saying 13, using “12+1” while at sea; and NEVER uttering the word ‘drown’ while out to sea.
These are just a few of the traditional maritime superstitions and myths believed by ancient and some modern sailors while off shore with the powers of the elements are out of their control.



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