What do ‘they’ know about hocus-pocus on board?

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Mariners are extra suspicious, “they”say, because of all the bad things that can happen on a boat. “They” don’t know squat.

“They” say it’s bad luck if rats jump off your boat. Tom begs to differ.

Boats are inanimate objects. I’m an educated guy, and I certainly know that my boat doesn’t respond to hocus-pocus. So I’m not worried about this bunk. I don’t need to worry because I know she takes care of me. I just have to listen to her. She’s told me a few things over the years, and we get along well without the need for superstitious rites. For example, she’s told me:

• If you want a port hole to leak, put a laptop under it.

• If you want the head to stop up, invite guests for dinner.

• If you want the freshwater pump to fail, wash your hair with plenty of shampoo.

• If you want to take off without unplugging the shore power cord, plug it into the most expensive power pedestal in the marina and take off with a crowd watching.

• If you want the shift linkage to break, back into a slip like a sportfisherman.

• If you want a snap shackle to break, hang from it.

And she’s always right!

But “they” say there are supernatural powers, the effect of which go far beyond the little lessons I’ve learned from my beautiful floating inanimate object. Well, I think that’s bunk, too. Never mind that the only time I left harbor on a Friday the 13th I lost my boat’s diesel three days later. And I didn’t lose it in the sense of where did I put that thing, but in the sense of it broke down. Forever.

But hey, there’s a logical explanation for everything. The engine had a defective part. Never mind that this part hadn’t caused any trouble for the 15 years the engine had been running. But I’m not superstitious, and it’s only coincidence that I’ve never left port on Friday the 13th — or any other Friday — again. And my skepticism for the myths of maritime superstition doesn’t stop here.

Take rats. They say that your boat is doomed if rats start jumping off. Please. I think “they” have it backward. I’d consider this to be very good luck, not bad luck. I don’t want rats on my boat. I’ve had parakeets fly off and fish flip off, but I’ve never had the good luck to have a rat jump off. I did throw a rat off once, but this experience reinforced the fact that the legends are seriously flawed.

For anglers, the presence of birds can be a good or bad thing, depending on whether fish or pelicans are biting.

We knew one was sneaking aboard while we were in a marina, so we set a huge rat trap. When it snapped around 2 a.m., we rushed up on deck to find the rat still very much alive and hopping around trying to kick the trap off its foot, which was pinned under the spring-loaded clamp. I threw him off with the help of a crab net that had a very long handle. The rat trap was so big that the rat hardly got wet. He just floated away on his new ship, toward a large water intake on a megayacht docked nearby.

Considering the superstition, I would have thought that the rat’s ship was surely safe because the rat definitely was not jumping off, despite its best efforts. But the rat’s ship was doomed despite this, and the rat soon became rat burger. I suppose that the fact that its leg was still caught in the trap was just a stroke of bad luck. But hey, that was a mariner rat’s luck. We’re talking mariner people. And I’ve had other experiences to prove that rats bring bad luck when they’re aboard, not when they leave.

The last time I had a rat on the boat it cost me a fortune. The rat was only on board for a few minutes, but while it was there it managed to bite the leg of our precious pet parakeet, unbeknownst to us at the time. We pulled out of harbor sans rat (I think) and a few days later pulled into Fort Lauderdale. By this time we had figured out what happened. Paying for a Fort Lauderdale avian veterinarian, not to mention parakeet leg splints, and renting a car to serve as the ambulance wouldn’t have bothered me if I’d still had the rat aboard, which, I am sure, would have given me the good luck to win the lottery.

Any discussion of rats, of course, conjures up the subject of cats. They’re supposed to bring good luck unless you look at them the wrong way or they look at you the wrong way. Go figure. I can’t figure, and from what I’ve heard I’d have to carry around a notebook listing all of the things I can and can’t do to get good luck or bad luck from a cat. Which is one reason I don’t have one on board. Another reason is that I’m concerned about this rat thing. If, perchance, there’s something to these superstitions, my boat would be doomed if I had a cat because any sensible rat would jump ship at the first sight of a cat. Other superstitions are less complex.

Consider the mystical albatross. “They” say that all is well if one just follows your boat. But if you hurt it, that’s another matter altogether. I can’t speak from personal experience because I’ve never hurt an albatross. I have had one follow me. When I saw it, I went into overdrive to avoid hurting it. We didn’t trail a fishing line, we kept watch to shoo it away in case it flew too close to the rigging, and we didn’t dump our tiny food scraps over the side, as we sometimes do when we’re far out at sea. I kept thinking, Suppose I dump, say, a piece of chicken wing into the sea and the albatross swoops in and gobbles it up and a bone gets stuck in its beak.

I had visions of that albatross plummeting to its death with that chicken bone and disaster soon overtaking my boat and family. Fortunately, he soon flew away, likely because he couldn’t stand the stink of the rotten scraps we’d piled in our dinghy. But I assure you, none of these precautions were because I’m superstitious. I just love feathery creatures.

But if “they” are going to insist that birds have mystical powers, perhaps “they” have been giving too much attention to the albatross. Some years ago, while making passage up the coast, we saw some frantic people in a center console off Palm Beach, Florida, wildly gesticulating and screaming at passing boats. They had been peacefully trolling when a pelican snatched up their bait and got securely hooked in its beak. As the pelican angrily circled high overhead, round and round the boat, tethered by the fishing line, they started calling mayday on the VHF. Why the fishermen issued a mayday I’m not sure, but they sounded as if they were sure.

It’s seldom good luck that prompts the bucket brigade.

I knew this bird was definitely not happy and, assuming it had the power, was conjuring up some black magic. The magic materialized in the shape of a marine patrol boat. I’m told that it was highly illegal at the time to catch pelicans on a fishing line. But although “they” might say the ensuing legal difficulty was some mystical interaction with a sacred bird, there was a far more logical explanation: the previous action of some unsacred politicians.

While on the subject of birds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say more about fishermen. These folks are claimed to have enough superstitions for all of us, and birds play a big role in that. Again, there’s usually a logical explanation lurking in the background. For example, many fishermen claim that the reading of omens is important to fishing, and these omens often involve birds. One of the strongest omens is diving birds, but this simply means there are fish below the surface, and the birds are out to fill their craws.

However, the bird omen goes a bit deeper. The more knowledgeable fishermen get the jump on others by looking for the far more powerful omen of a huge flock of seagulls, sitting quietly on the water, that suddenly take flight en masse. This means, say the superstitious, that they know there are fish nearby and they’re preparing to dive for a meal. But like so many superstitions, there’s a logical explanation. This massive dash to flight has nothing to do with the gulls’ next meal, but their last. It simply means that one of them has passed gas.

There are far less dramatic superstitions. One is that if you step aboard your boat with your left foot, all sorts of bad things will happen. I’ve stepped aboard my boat left foot first many times. Not a problem. What is a problem is that “they” don’t say anything about stepping off your boat with your left foot. I’ve also done this many times, and I can testify that the results can indeed be catastrophic, especially when the dock isn’t there. I don’t know why there isn’t some legend about that.

Then there is spitting. There are all sorts of bad things that “they” say you can remedy by spitting over your left shoulder. The devil is known to follow you to your left, and the idea is that he’ll stop following you. I think if I spit on the devil he’d be more likely to shove his pitchfork in a place I’d just as soon he didn’t. I also think that if anybody spits on my boat, no matter which shoulder he uses, he’s going to know what bad luck is really all about.

I’ll admit there’s one superstition that has gained my respect over the years. It’s somewhat like the reverse of listening to my boat talk to me, which is where we began this discussion. It’s called “puttin’ mouth on it.” It goes like this. If you’ve had a spell of sunshine and fair winds and you say, Man, we sure have had some good weather, you’re probably going to get slammed by a hurricane the next day. If your engine has been purring along perfectly day after day and you say something like, She’s been running great, it’ll probably explode within hours. You can’t even reverse this magic. If I say my engine is going to throw a valve to trick the gods into giving me a good day of running, the valve does fine — and the oil pan drops out.

This even works ex post facto. I once bragged loudly about repairing an outboard for my dinghy. The next day as I was reinstalling it, I dropped it overboard. Any reasonably intelligent person would say that has nothing to do with superstition. I just wasn’t careful. But I know better. I’ve had too many bad experiences in my boat when I got into trouble because of something I’d said. So the one lesson that I’m trying to learn from the lore of superstitions is that I’ll do much better if I just shut my mouth.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.