It’s well-known that sailors have long been a superstitious bunch. Whether or not you believe in maritime lore about what can impact the luck of your sailing, here are 29 weird cruise ship superstitions you’ll want to know about.
There are lots of cruise ship superstitions that mariners traditionally say we should follow, and some sound pretty strange to landlubbers!
Sailors have been exploring the oceans since antiquity, and they often faced dangerous conditions far from the comforts of home. Following maritime superstitions handed down over the centuries gave them a sense of control over their environment.
Thankfully, cruise ship travelers won’t encounter anything near the hazards that sailors of old had to deal with—but many of the traditional ship’s superstitions still live on today.
Let’s explore some of the more unusual ship superstitions you should know before you set sail.
1. Don’t say “good luck” on the ship
Saying “good luck” to someone about to take a voyage by ship is considered a bad omen. Legend says if you hear these words of encouragement before your sailing—or even on the ship—it’s bound to bring you the opposite fortune.
What are you supposed to do if some well-meaning person wishes you luck before your cruise? The only way sailors traditionally countered the omen was by drawing blood! (Note: please don’t punch your friends in the nose.)
This ship superstition definitely predates cruise ship casinos, where you’ll often hear other passengers good-naturedly wishing others good luck as they walk away. Maybe this is why I never win in the ship’s casinos?
2. Flowers are bad luck on a ship
Fresh flowers are thought to bring bad luck on ships, because they could be used later to make a funeral wreath for the dead. Sailors looked at flowers as a sign that someone could die on the voyage, so they’d never have them on board.
But most cruise lines offer a fresh flower bouquet as a gift suggestion for friends going on a cruise. If you’re superstitious, maybe consider ordering a plate of chocolate-dipped fruit or a nice tray of canapés instead?
I once had a gorgeous vase of flowers in my stateroom, delivered for the Ultimate Balcony Dining experience on a Princess cruise. I didn’t have any bad luck on the voyage, but we did have to change course to avoid a huge storm. Hmm.
3. It’s bad luck to cut your hair or nails at sea
Cruise ship spa and salon staff will say otherwise, but cutting your hair or nails at sea (or even shaving) is thought to bring bad luck.
In Roman mythology, hair and nail clippings were given to the goddess Proserpina for good fortune. Neptune, king of the sea, would be jealous if these offerings were made in his territory.
My theory? This was just an easy way for sailors to get away with ignoring basic grooming on long voyages.
4. Don’t step onto the ship with your left foot first
Some cultures traditionally link the left side of the body to the Devil—especially the left hand and left foot.
Superstitious sailors believe that to start a journey on the right foot, you literally need to step aboard with the right foot first. If someone enters the ship left foot first, it brings bad luck for the journey ahead.
The next time you’re on a cruise, pause for a bit on the gangway before stepping on the ship and watch your fellow passengers. You’ll spot the superstitious ones making sure they go right foot first!
5. Black cats are good luck on a ship
Black cats are considered unlucky in many cultures, but not so aboard ships. Sailors believed that cats have magic powers in their tails that protect ships from unfavorable weather.
Even off the ship, many sailors’ wives kept black cats at home, believing that the magical creatures would protect their husbands from afar.
Sailors protected the cats as well—cats were essential to rid a ship from rats that carried disease, gnawed on ropes, and infiltrated food supplies and cargo. If a ship’s cat fell overboard, it was believed the cat could use its powers to summon a storm. If the ship made it through the cat-created weather without sinking, it would carry a curse for nine long years!
You won’t encounter any cats on most cruise ships, although Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 has a kennel that boards feline friends.
Captain Kate McCue of Celebrity Edge also sails with her cat, a hairless Elf Sphynx named Bug Naked (check out Bug’s super-cute Instagram).
6. Stay away from flat-footed people at the beginning of your trip
Sailors believe it’s bad luck to encounter a flat-footed person before a voyage. However, any danger from meeting a person with fallen arches can be averted by speaking to them before they speak to you.
This ship superstition may have come from the belief that people with flat feet would more easily fall from the rigging, so they should just be avoided completely.
I’m not sure how you’d know someone is flat-footed unless they aren’t wearing shoes. But in the unlikely event that a barefoot person with flat feet comes near you in the cruise terminal, maybe consider saying hi before they do!
7. You shouldn’t whistle (or sing!) on a ship
A common marine superstition is that whistling or singing into the wind will “whistle up a storm”. Some say this only applies to whistling on the bridge (so be careful if you book a behind-the-scenes tour!)
The legend may also relate to the 1789 mutiny on HMS Bounty, when a whistle was the starting signal for the crew members to wrest control from Captain Bligh.
Despite the popularity of sea shanties on sailing ships, singing on a ship supposedly also brings stormy weather. Try telling that to the crowds of people singing along at the piano bar on a cruise ship!
8. Never wear new shoes on the bridge
According to John Heald, Carnival’s Brand Ambassador, the cruise line’s Italian captains refuse to wear new shoes on the bridge.
I wasn’t able to find an origin story on this cruise ship superstition, or what kind of bad luck new shoes are supposed to bring. But I know that with all the walking I do on cruises, wearing brand new shoes would give me blisters! That would definitely be bad luck.
9. Dolphins swimming near the ship are a sign of good luck
Humans and dolphins have had a special relationship since ancient times, and we often think of the marine mammals as guides, rescuers, and friends.
For centuries, fishermen have believed that the presence of dolphins next to a boat means that the vessel is under the creatures’ protection.
Dolphins are very curious, and feel the need to investigate newcomers to their habitat—occasionally even large ships! So consider yourself lucky if you spot a pod of friendly dolphins following your cruise ship.
10. A shark following the ship means someone will die
Mariners have long believed that sharks are able to sense those who are near death. So, a shark following their ship meant someone on board would die.
But sharks likely followed ships in the hope that they’d have a snack from any food waste that was tossed overboard.
Today’s cruise ships process and then incinerate food scraps, so any hungry sharks don’t have much hope of chowing down on our leftovers.
11. It’s bad luck to look back after the ship leaves port
Sailors believe that looking back after their ship leaves port brings bad luck—not only to the wistful looker but to the entire ship!
Gazing back at the port implies a sailor isn’t truly ready to brave the vast ocean and complete a long voyage at sea.
I’m guilty of looking back to port at every sailaway party—part of the fun of embarkation day is watching the city shrink in the distance until you can’t see any land on the horizon. I’m taking my chances with this superstition!
12. Deck 13 is bad luck on a ship
In many western cultures, thirteen is an unlucky number. You’ll notice that most office buildings, apartments, and hotels in these parts of the world skip 13 when naming floors—what’s actually the 13th floor is called 14.
Skipping deck 13 is also a tradition on most cruise ships, at least if there are staterooms on that deck. If you’re superstitious and your ship has cabins on deck 13, make sure you don’t book a guarantee fare for your cruise!
Sailors are so concerned about the unlucky number that they won’t even utter the word at sea. Instead, they say “twelve plus one” if they need to.
Similar cruise ship superstitions exist in other areas. Cruise lines based in East Asia often won’t have passenger cabins on deck 4. Some Italian cruise lines skip deck 17. In those cultures, these numbers imply death!
13. Avoid redheads when heading to the ship
Mariners believe that having people with red hair on a ship is unlucky, and even meeting a redhead before sailing will bring bad luck to the voyage.
Just like with the flat-footed people superstition, the only way to avoid bad luck is to speak to the ginger-haired person before they speak to you.
This legend dates back to the Middle Ages, a time when redheads were routinely accused of witchcraft. Some thought that red hair came from the fires of hell! In Greek folklore, people with red hair were thought to turn into vampires after death.
Thankfully, cruise lines don’t care what color hair passengers have (and most cruisers don’t, either). But if you’re really superstitious, greet any approaching redheads before they can say hello!
14. Umbrellas on the ship are bad luck
Umbrellas are used in foul weather, so sailors believe that bringing one aboard only tempts fate.
The origin of this ship superstition makes some sense—an umbrella would only get in the way of the strenuous work sailors had to do at sea, so they said it was “bad luck” to discourage any newbies from using one.
Can you even imagine Blackbeard or Captain Kidd carrying an umbrella? And yes, waterproof umbrellas (they were originally wax-coated) have been around since the 16th century.
I always bring a small travel umbrella on cruises, but I only use it if it rains on a shore excursion. Now that I think about it, it rains on a lot of my shore excursions. Have I been tempting fate?
15. It’s a good sign to see swallows at sea
I’m not talking about the swallows that you see at cruise ship bars when everyone has a beverage package—it’s the birds that are good luck when you see them on a sea voyage.
This maritime superstition comes from the fact that swallows are land-based birds. Seeing one means land is near and your long journey by sea will likely come to a successful end.
You’ll find swallows on all the continents (even Antarctica), so bird-loving cruisers will want to keep an eye out for these small avian creatures. Your sharp eye will let you know you’re near port before it comes into view.
16. Black luggage is bad luck on a ship
Some sailors are superstitious of suitcases in general, but black luggage—the color that generally represents death in the Western world—is thought to bring bad luck.
Not only does the color have morbid connotations, but it also represents the depths of the sea.
Unfortunately for superstitious cruisers, black suitcases are the most popular color you’ll find when shopping for new bags. But if you choose an unusual color for your luggage, it comes with the added benefit of being easier to spot at the cruise terminal on disembarkation day!
17. It’s good luck to bottle the first water that touches the ship
A cruise ship superstition that supposedly brings good luck to the vessel is the practice of bottling the first water that touches a new ship, and keeping the bottle on board to keep the luck going.
In 2016, Captain Emiel de Vries, then the commander of Holland America Line’s Koningsdam, told Carnival Corporation one of the first things he looks for when boarding a cruise ship is that bottle of water.
“When a ship starts to float, the water that first touches the ship is caught in a bottle and it’s sealed,” he said. “Later it is typically displayed in the captain’s office near the bridge. You walk in and think, ‘Ah, there’s the bottle. Everything is good. If I would walk on a ship and it’s not there, I would find that odd.”
Have you seen this lucky water bottle on a cruise ship? Apparently it’s kept in the Captain’s office, so I’ve never seen one. Let me know in the comments if you have!
18. It’s bad luck to bring bananas on a ship
Sailors have believed bananas bring ships bad luck since the 18th century, when most trading vessels between Spain and the Caribbean that disappeared also happened to be loaded with the fruit.
Since bananas were a major export for the Caribbean at the time, it’s likely that most ships would have been carrying bananas, but the superstition stuck.
Shipments of bananas can harbor deadly spiders—they make a perfect hiding place for the eight-legged beasts. Bananas also emit ethylene gas that causes other fruits to ripen prematurely, so I can see why mariners would be wary of bananas.
But I’ve never been on a cruise ship that didn’t offer bananas at breakfast, so this one’s a tough superstition to avoid on a cruise!
19. Pouring wine on the deck ensures good luck
An old ship superstition says that spilling wine on deck before a voyage will guarantee a safe return home. Ships used to be christened with red wine—signifying the spilling of Jesus’ blood.
From a practical standpoint, the practice was likely used to check for cracks in the ship’s hull, which blood-red wine would easily show.
But before you start pouring your 2009 Château Margaux all over the Lido deck, rest assured that the ceremony has already been performed for you!
The most popular cruise ship superstition lives on in the form of notable godmothers (and sometimes godfathers) blessing new ships and smashing a bottle on the vessel’s hull.
Fun fact: Singer/songwriter/rapper Pitbull joined the small club of cruise ship godfathers when he christened Norwegian Escape in 2015.
Beginning in the 20th century, Champagne has been used to christen ships to secure good luck for all future voyages.
20. It’s bad luck to rename a ship
According to longstanding maritime folklore, it’s bad luck to rename a ship after her initial naming ceremony. Neptune, the ancient Roman god of the sea, kept a ledger of all ships and their names—so changing one would only summon his wrath.
In practical terms, early trading ships earned a reputation (good or bad), so changing a ship’s name could have connotations for the crew.
There is a de-naming ceremony that obliterates all traces of a ship’s former name. If the ceremony is performed properly, superstition says that Neptune won’t notice and bad luck won’t follow.
With today’s cruise ships, names are usually only changed when a ship is sold to another cruise line. But sometimes a ship does have a name change if she stays within the same fleet.
For example, Costa Cruises ordered the ship we now know as Norwegian Sky as the Costa Olympia—but she never sailed under that name. NCL took delivery of the ship in 1999 as Norwegian Sky, but she was called Pride of Aloha from 2004 until 2008 when her name was changed back to Sky.
The last pre-pandemic cruise I took was on the Sky (I took the photo above from one of her tenders in mid-February 2020, just weeks before the world went into lockdown). If I were a superstitious person, I’d say that’s some bad luck!
21. If you hear bells ringing at sea, someone will die
Because ringing bells are often associated with funerals, the sound of bells (or anything that sounds like bells) is thought to forecast death on a ship.
The sound of a ringing wine glass mimics the chime of bells, so a maritime superstition says you must stop the sound immediately or someone will soon die.
A ship’s bells—used to signal time and changing of watch duties—are usually exempt from the omen. However, if the ship’s bells ring on their own in rough seas, it’s a harbinger of death. Eek!
22. It’s unlucky to kill an albatross (or a gull)
Seabirds, including albatross and gulls, were thought to host the souls of sailors lost at sea. To avoid being haunted by these spirits, it’s best to be kind to sea birds.
In Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a crew member shoots a friendly albatross that visited the boat each day. Once the bird had been killed, the crew suffered a series of misfortunes.
Seeing a gull or albatross is a good omen during a voyage, so resist the urge to hurt them (even if they steal your french fries!)
23. Saying the word “pig” on a ship brings bad luck
Some sailors refuse to transport pigs on their boats or even utter the name of the animal. Pigs are considered bad luck because of the mistaken assumption that they can’t swim. (Pigs are actually excellent swimmers, as I learned when I swam with pigs in the Bahamas.)
If a ship does have pigs on board, mariners might refer to them by other names, like “turf-rooters” or “curly-tails”.
Mentioning the word “pig” on a ship is said to result in dangerously strong winds. Killing a pig on board could even bring on a full-scale storm!
You won’t encounter any pigs on a cruise ship (except in the form of bacon). But if you’re cruising with little ones, be sure to teach them to say “Peppa Turf-Rooter” when they want to watch cartoons.
24. Throwing stones into the sea will cause stormy weather
Throwing a stone overboard when the ship is setting sail will doom the vessel to never return!
According to an old ship superstition, throwing a stone into the sea is disrespectful to the ocean. The sea will retaliate by sending stormy weather and high winds to the ship.
On a cruise ship, anyone caught throwing a stone (or anything else) overboard is likely to be dropped off at the next port to find their own way home.
Learn more: 35 Things You Should Never Do on a Cruise
25. Don’t say the word “drown” at sea
Another word that sailors avoid saying is “drown”, believing that saying the term might summon the actual event. Other forms of the word like “drowned” and “drowning” also count with this ship superstition!
Much like several other bad luck omens aboard ships, the only way to reverse the curse is by drawing blood, so avoid saying any of these words on a ship if an old salt is nearby.
26. It’s bad luck to go near a priest on board
Some sailors believe priests (and ministers) are bad luck on ships, because they often wear black and perform funeral services. Rabbis apparently are fine, although they also wear black and officiate at funerals.
Priests have long been considered unlucky in European folklore, and the accepted remedy for any bad luck you might catch from encountering one on a ship is to touch wood.
Many cruise lines do have a volunteer clergy member on board who acts as the ship’s chaplain and performs religious services, so the odds are fairly good that you’ll encounter a clergy member on a cruise.
27. There are certain days you should never start your voyage
Superstitious seafarers consider many days of the week unlucky to set sail. Friday is one of the unluckiest, as Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
Thursday is named after Thor, the Norse god associated with thunder, lightning, and stormy weather—so it’s also bad luck to begin on that day.
But thankfully Sunday is usually a good day to start a voyage, according to the proverb “Sunday sail, never fail”.
There are also a few days on each year’s calendar when you shouldn’t begin a journey by ship. These unlucky days all have biblical origins:
- The first Monday in April (the day that Cain killed Abel)
- The second Monday in August (the day that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed)
- December 31 (the day that Judas hanged himself)
I agree with the superstition against embarking on New Year’s Eve—but just because if you wait a few days, fares drop drastically!
Learn more: How to Save Money on Cruises
28. Never toast with water
Toasting with Champagne is said to bring good luck, but what if you don’t drink alcohol? According to many mariners, choose anything but water for your toast.
Some sailors believe that toasting with water will bring bad luck, or even death by drowning.
Even the Navy believes in this maritime superstition! According to the US Navy’s Mess Night Manual, “…it is highly improper to drink a toast with water. For this reason, all water glasses are removed from the table before the toasting begins.”
29. It’s good luck for a ship to have a silver coin under the mast
If all of these ship superstitions have you nervous about a vacation at sea, don’t worry! One of the most popular cruise ship superstitions involves placing a lucky silver coin on the ship for divine protection.
This tradition dates back to ancient Rome, when silver coins were placed under ships’ masts.
On modern cruise ships, there’s usually a coin ceremony during the early stages of the ship’s construction. At the keel-laying, one or two coins are positioned under the keel to bring the new ship good luck.
Hopefully, these lucky coins are good enough to negate any bad luck caused by bananas or black suitcases!
Which of these weird cruise ship superstitions do you think is the strangest? Are there any others I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments below!
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