Albatross in the Red Sky on Friday: Does Irrational Superstition on the Great Lakes Make a Difference – Summer 2015

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Sara E. Cordle


Seamen on the Great Lakes are a vast group commonly known for their beliefs in superstition. They are known for often delaying, or sometimes even canceling, the launch of their travels due to ‘unlucky’ superstitious circumstances, such as rats fleeing from a soon-to-launch ship or the forbidden renaming of a vessel. Albeit irrational, by definition, superstition has a long- standing reputation of causing fear and anxiety among sailors. Has any reputable research been performed on why superstition even exists to cause said fear and anxiety? While normal human responses, both have the potential to cause psychological and physiological handicaps for any human being, so is it completely out of the question that superstition should be taken just a bit more seriously to avoid these consequences? Can fear and anxiety specifically caused by maritime superstition result in a strong enough psychological or physiological handicap to change a seaman’s fate? Through diverse research and with an open mind, one can come to the educated conclusion that, yes, fear and anxiety have the power to change a sailor’s fate for the better or, more commonly, for the worse. Seamen on the Great Lakes should make cautious decisions while experiencing maritime superstitions due to fear often affecting individuals’ psychological and physiological well-being, as well as some superstitions existing for factual reasons.

If superstitions have been so widely brushed off as irrational beliefs, why have so many cultures around the world chosen to accept them as fact? Great Lakes sailors are not strangers to superstitious beliefs. Quite the contrary, sailors are in a long-standing love/hate relationship with superstition. Frederick Stonehouse, author and scholar of Great Lakes maritime history, states, “It could be said that sailors are among the most superstitious people on earth” (Stonehouse 47).

While often viewed as irrational, superstition is prevalent in the maritime community and remains a powerful influence on many sailors’ beliefs and actions. Some sailors carry coins for good luck, some whistle a tune to bring upon good winds. In a study performed by the Journal of Consumer Research, Eric Hamerman and Gita Johar state, “individuals who have previously engaged in superstitious behavior perceive that their actions will increase their likelihood of future success” (Hamerman and Johar 1). This is the definition of conditioned superstition, meaning the sailors are more likely to continue a superstitious task if they have had even just one positive experience in the past following the completion of that task. If it has been proven that positive actions increase an individual’s perception of the likelihood of future successes, it should also logically apply to the opposite statement. When experienced by sailors who believe in them, negative maritime superstitions will also cause a sailor to intentionally avoid situations or perform certain actions differently. These avoidances can either hinder a sailor’s performance, or potentially save his life.

While the list of maritime superstitions in the Great Lakes is long, one of the most commonly followed maritime superstitions is the presence, or lack, of rats on a ship. According to Vickie Boutwell, an avid rat enthusiast and long-time pet owner, rats become strongly attached to their surroundings and will not vacate their homes unless they are in fear for the well- being of their colony (Boutwell par 26). Rats are curious animals by nature, but they will not set up new territory as a colony unless they are threatened by dangerous living conditions or predators. With these facts in mind, the majority of sailors believe that rats will not inhabit an unseaworthy ship. Many sailors believe that to witness a family of rats fleeing a vessel before launching guarantees a doomed fate for both the sailor and the vessel (Stonehouse 49). In the case of ships and sea vessels, a threatening living condition (i.e. water seeping into the hull of a ship, unsteady or unbalanced flooring, abnormal temperatures) could be a direct cause for a colony of rats to immediately flee to the safety of dry land, thus predicting doom for vessel and crew.

Judging by history, sailors may be onto something; rats may actually know best, as evidenced by this superstition in action. In 1883, a Detroit tug, Erie Belle was scheduled to pull a schooner from the beach at Kincardine. According to Frederick Stonehouse, two firemen aboard the tug witnessed a colony of rats fleeing to dry land. In fear of why the rats might be fleeing, the firemen abandoned the tug. Within a few hours after leaving the dock, the tug’s boilers exploded, resulting in the deaths of four crewmen (Stonehouse 49). After hearing the news of this explosion, the firemen were relieved to know they had made the right decision. Was this simply a coincidence, or did the rats sense that the Erie Belle’s boilers were going to explode?

An additional example of rats’ survival instincts predicting the fate of a ship is shown in the story of the Ste. Marie in November of 1886. Minutes before launching the ship, half of the crew witnessed nearly three dozen rats scurrying to dry land. Being superstitious sailors, that half of the crew left the ship and did not proceed with the launching. Per Stonehouse, little to their surprise, the steamer was knocked onto a reef just a few days after the launch. It was reported soon after that lightening the load of the cargo helped to balance the ship and keep her afloat (Stonehouse 49). It is likely that the rats realized the ship was further below sea level prior to its launch, and the rats deemed it unsafe, thus fleeing to dry land. Coincidence? Or smart rats? Maybe sailors on the Great Lakes could learn a thing or two about ship safety from our friendly rodent tenants.

One maritime superstition that goes hand-in-hand with rats aboard a vessel is cats, or felines, aboard. However, there is a disagreement among sailors as to whether or not cats bring good or bad fortune, and what exactly they contribute to the vessel. There are two known beliefs in regards to felines on board ships. According to Peter Jeans, one small population of sailors believe that cats are a valuable asset to a vessel, because cats, hunters by nature, keep the rat population at bay (Jeans 315). This is contradictory to what has already been proven regarding rats. If rats dwelling on a vessel prove its seaworthiness, why would sailors welcome another animal to hunt the rats? Although it is a reliable indicator of unseen rats on the ship, it would not be in the sailors’ best interests to welcome cats aboard. Perhaps a more logical superstitious belief of sailors is that cats are actually bad luck and not a welcome visitor aboard vessels. Speaking of the bad luck cats can bring to a ship, Frederick Stonehouse states, “They (cats) were never a ship’s mascot. If one was found aboard, it was always considered someone’s, but never the ship’s” (Stonehouse 48). In this population, cats were not welcomed aboard ships. While it may be difficult for the entire maritime community to agree on one position regarding their furry feline friends, it is simple to conclude, knowing what we now know about the rat population, that cats are not beneficial to have on board a vessel.

Another of the more commonly known maritime superstitions is the forbidden renaming of a vessel. According to Peter D. Jeans, an avid writer and sailor, it is absolutely bad luck to change the name of a vessel, and it should be avoided at all costs (Jeans 306). This is mostly due in part to a vessel and crew achieving a certain personality once given a name. The origins of this superstition were likely quite practical. According to, a company that specializes in producing lettering used to display names on boats:

For thousands of years, boats were built exclusively for commercial or military purposes. Commercial boats, defined as fishing boats, cargo, utility and passenger vessels were owned and operated by businesses whose primary goal was to make a profit. Taxes, fees and assessments on these transactions were awkward to define and enforce. Unless a “change of ownership” was documented and provided to the taxing authorities, it was difficult to collect taxes associated with these transactions. Changing the name on a vessel was perhaps the most obvious way to advertise that a large transaction had just taken place, attracting unwanted attention from taxing authorities and other opportunists. It was therefore considered “unlucky” to bring attention to the change of ownership. (“Boat Naming Mythology”)

These practical financial considerations may help to explain the origins of this superstition, but it does little to explain the fact that dozens of forums and websites for boaters provide instructions for detailed ceremonies that can be used to “de-name” a boat before renaming it. Specific procedures vary, but in general, the following steps are recommended to boaters who wish to avoid bring bad luck to their boat:

Prepare the boat by removing all traces of the old name. This includes removing the log. Boaters are warned to look very carefully to be sure that the name does not appear in some forgotten place, such as written on a chart/map or etched into a piece of equipment. This “purging” process should be completed no less than 24 hours before the renaming ceremony. Write the name of the boat on a slip of paper, place it in a wooden box, burn the box, collect the ashes and drop the ashes into the sea on your first outgoing voyage on the newly named boat.

Once the boat has been purged of its former name, then the new name can be displayed on the boat. In addition to the physical act of marking the boat with the new name, tradition typically includes a christening ceremony. Breaking a bottle of champagne on the bow of the boat may seem like a waste of wine, but the goal was to gain the blessings of the God of the Sea, Poseidon. Breaking the bottle so that the champagne flows into the sea is the equivalent of making an offering in the hopes that Poseidon will ensure safe waters for the christened boat. Although the original meaning of the ritual may have been lost over time, christening is viewed as a necessary step in the launching of a new boat.

One of the most popular examples of this superstition in the history books is the fate of the tug, Admiral, and the ship, Cleveco. Per Frederick Stonehouse, both of these vessels sank together in 1942, both vessels losing all hands on deck. Coincidentally, both of these vessels had recently forgone name changes (Stonehouse 67). To this very day, sailors still swear that the name changes of both vessels were to blame for their unfortunate demise. Unlike the existence of rats on a ship, this particular superstition does not hold much merit of proof, and it is difficult to justify. In fact, one could say it is purely coincidence that some vessels in the past have not fared well after a name change. Perhaps it is, but does a superstition really need to be backed up with logic and proven historical research in order to be considered dangerous? The renaming of a vessel may not change the attitude of the ship itself, but it does have an effect on its crew, and that effect is fear. Like all other superstitions, the renaming of a vessel strikes fear and anxiety into the hearts of the sailors that believe in its power, and that is a bigger problem in and of itself.

Fear and anxiety are normal psychological reactions by the human body in response to perceived harm. In the case of maritime superstition, most sailors who believe in superstitions inadvertently perceive them as biological harm. These completely normal reactions of fear and anxiety, when excessive or uncontrolled, have been proven to cause negative effects, both psychologically and physiologically. David Ropeik, the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, states Psychoneuroimmunological testing in lab animals and a range of humans has proven certain psychological conditions, specifically fear and anxiety, are associated with many negative psychological and physiological dispositions. Psychologically, a subject that experiences excessive fear and/or anxiety is more likely to suffer from impaired formation of long-term memories (Ropeik par 28). In addition to impaired long-term memory loss, it has also been academically proven that belief in superstition increases death anxiety. In an academic research study performed in Hong Kong, China, S.H. Wong concluded, “People with more superstitious beliefs tend to have higher death anxiety and more fears of death” (Wong 67). In other words, a sailor who believes in superstitions is generally more likely to be on edge than a sailor who does not believe in superstition, all because they have a stronger fear of death caused by said superstition. If a sailor is suffering from impaired long-term memory loss and increased death anxiety, will he remember his most critical responsibilities and have the capability to react appropriately during times of crisis? It is possible that he may handle a crisis situation with ease, but it is also possible that he will put the vessel’s entire crew in jeopardy with an innocent mistake caused by these handicaps. These handicaps were directly caused by the sailor’s belief in superstition.

The power of fear and anxiety reaches much further than simply affecting a sailor’s psychological health. In addition to affecting their ability to cope with certain situations, how sailors react to their own fear and anxiety has great power over their physiological health. Among the physiological dispositions caused by fear and anxiety are a weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome, increased cardiovascular damage, and fatigue (Ropeik par 28). Sailors, already predisposed to frequent illness due to their travels and the nature of their work, are especially susceptible to these conditions when their belief of superstition takes control. The referenced effects of fear and anxiety have the snowballing capability of creating hazardous environments for all of those involved. In the case of maritime superstition, it is not simply the superstitions themselves that create danger for sailors; the sailors’ perceptions of the superstitions are what causes these environmental risks. How well can a sailor perform his or her duties while under the influence of a weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome, increased cardiovascular damage, or fatigue? David Ropeik states, “We must accept that being worried or not worried enough has real health consequences that need to be understood, quantified, and incorporated into risk management” (Ropeik par 37). Special precautions need to be taken during these times when sailors find themselves in a valley of superstitious fear and anxiety, because it can help alleviate or prevent these physiological symptoms and save lives. In contrast, little research has been performed to support the argument that the pressure and stress from these conditions do anything to improve a person’s performance. These physiological handicaps irrefutably impact the safety of a sailor, his ship, and the rest of his crew.

Without doubt, in the life of a typical seaman on the Great Lakes, superstition is a powerful force to be reckoned with, and it is not going away anytime soon. Superstitious beliefs strike fear and anxiety into their hearts, and the result is often psychological and physiological handicaps. In other words, belief in superstition is inevitable in the maritime community, and sailors would benefit by embracing it in order to avoid its potentially life-threatening effects.

Is maritime superstition really so irrational? Does it make a difference? No, it is not so irrational, as most superstitious fears can be backed by logical human responses. Yes, superstition does make a difference, and it should be taken seriously, especially by sailors on the Great Lakes.

Works Cited
“Boat Naming Mythology.” 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
Boutwell, Vickie. “Behavior” Curiosity Rats. Vickie Boutwell, 31 Dec. 2004. Web.
Hamerman, Eric J., and Gita V. Johar. “Conditioned Superstition: Desire for Control and Consumer Brand Preferences.” Journal of Consumer Research 40.3 (2013): 428–43. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.
Jeans, Peter D. “Superstition and Belief.” Seafaring Lore & Legend: A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable, and Fact. Camden, Me.: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2004. 304–28. Print.
Ropeik, David. “The Consequences of Fear.” EMBO Reports. European Molecular Biology Organization, 1 Oct. 2004. Web.
Stonehouse, Frederick. “Superstitions.” Haunted Lakes: Great Lakes Ghost Stories, Superstitions, and Sea Serpents. Duluth, Minn.: Lake Superior Port Cities, 1997. 47–72. Print.
Wong, S. H. “Does Superstition Help? A Study of the Role of Superstitions and Death Beliefs on Death Anxiety amongst Chinese Undergraduates in Hong Kong.” Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 65.1 (2012): 55–70. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

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About the Author: Sara E. Cordle was a freshman at Bowling Green State University, Firelands Campus and was the first of our student essay series.   

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