Time Has Forgotten These Old & Strange Nautical Traditions


The rich tradition of the sea includes the beliefs and practices of mariners who traversed the globe in pursuit of wealth and adventure, many of which have become part of everyday life. The language of sailors has flavored everyday dialect with a liberal dose of salt, often unknown to those expressing themselves in everyday idioms. Nautical terms are part of everyday conversation, whether in reference to one being three sheets to the wind (intoxicated), thus requiring a wide berth (best avoided), since communications with one in such condition could be touch and go (potentially troublesome). Nautical traditions aren’t limited to language though, and some which were once part of the daily lives of sailors, traditions which one thought would last forever, are as lost as oars on ocean-going ships.

A sailor from the 19th century, or even the 20th, would be taken aback to learn that so many of what were once aspects of life at sea are no more. Some have been taken away by well-meaning yet ill-informed actions of figures in authority. Others have simply faded into the past, lamented by some and forgotten by others. On some ships, sailors strive to keep past traditions alive, though to do so requires some subterfuge as naval regulations are flouted in the name of history. Here are some traditions of the sea which are no more, some thankfully so, some lamentably so, and some possibly still carried on, hidden deep within the bowels of ships at sea.

10. Cats once held places of honor aboard ships of all nations

Ships are nearly perfect environments for rodents and other unwanted visitors, stowed away aboard to live in the myriad hidden spaces and crannies, often taking up residence during construction. Aboard naval vessels, with their constant inspections, they are less common than they once were. During the years before refrigeration and sealed containers for perishable foods, rats aboard ship were common, to the point that their eradication was a major part of ship’s routine. Cats were popular members of ship’s crews, both as pets for companionship and as anti-rodent patrols. Some became famous, occupying hallowed places in the memories of their shipmates, and in the annals of the navy in which they served. A ship’s cat known as Unsinkable Sam, for example, is honored with a pastel portrait in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. He bears the name Oskar in the portrait.

Oskar was a ship’s cat aboard the German battleship Bismarck who survived the sinking of that vessel in 1941, and was adopted by British crews of subsequent ships. He then survived the sinking of HMS Cossack, and HMS Ark Royal, before retiring to a Belfast sailor’s home. An American ship’s cat named Pooli served with distinction during World War II and was photographed years later in retirement, wearing the uniform blouse made for him by his ship’s crew. Some cats aboard British ships were assigned hammocks and kit bags, and were carried on the ship’s books as members of the crew. Winston Churchill was photographed stooping to pet a ship’s cat (Blackie) aboard HMS Prince of Wales as he disembarked to meet President Roosevelt at Argentia Bay. Ship’s cats are gone now, regulated out of existence by health restrictions and stuffed bureaucratic shirts in shore bound offices. For many, they are sorely missed.

9. Receiving one’s alcohol ration was once the high point of a sailor’s day

On ships of all nations of the Christian world (ships of the Muslim nations often, but not always, proscribed alcohol), sailors were daily served a ration of alcohol, in the form of wine, liquor, or beer, and for ships in the commercial trade often all three. In warships the amount of alcohol was less copious, but still a daily event. By the mid-eighteenth century the beverage of choice was rum, served with the juice of lemons or limes, at least on ships of English speaking nations. The French and Spanish preferred wine or brandy. The English sailors called the mixture grog, short for the grogham coat worn by British Admiral Edward Vernon. One of his young officers, a Virginian named Lawrence Washington named his Tidewater plantation Mount Vernon in honor of his commander. It was later inherited by his half-brother, George.

Noon was the serving time for grog in the British Navy, a tradition which held sway until October 31, 1970, a date remembered with infamy among the sailors in Her Majesty’s fleet. The United States Navy imposed mandatory teetotaling upon its sailors at sea on July 1, 1914, though for several years the liquor ration had been steadily reduced and restricted. There are occasional exceptions granted for US Navy ships on extended deployments, though they are kept largely quiet to avoid the outrage of moralists ashore, indignant that American sailors may drink a beer or two at taxpayer expense. By contrast, French sailors may still enjoy a glass of wine while off duty while serving aboard ships of their Navy. American sailors assigned to French warships – a common occurrence between allies – are allowed to enjoy the same benefits as their hosts, including purchasing an alcoholic beverage for consumption when off duty.

8. Sailors once slept in hammocks, and if they died at sea were buried in them

Well into the 20th century, including upon many of the older ships which served during the Second World War, hammocks served as the sleeping space for sailors aboard ships. Hammocks were well suited to the purpose; when not occupied they were unslung and stowed away, providing open space for ship’s work. They were easily aired out, dried quickly after being doused with seawater, and as the ship rolled and pitched around them they were relatively stable, though the occupant sensed the motion readily. Once a sailor became used to the necessary curvature of the spine while sleeping, and the motion the hammock induced, they were comfortable, though usually packed in tiers. In the British Navy for decades, 18 inches per man was the allotted sleeping space.

Hammocks originally displaced placed berths aboard ships when sailors discovered they were more comfortable for use at sea. They were developed by natives of the Caribbean, adopted by Spanish and Portuguese mariners, and eventually became one of the symbols of the sailor. Aboard ship, a man’s hammock was often his only private space. His earthly possessions were tied up in it during the day, at night suspended in a bag from it as he slept within. If he was so unfortunate as to die at sea, his body was sewn within his hammock for burial beneath the waves, the final stitch often through his nose to ensure that he was truly dead. By the 1950s, hammocks were for the most part gone from ships, with sailors again sleeping in berths, in which they again endure the myriad motions of a ship underway.

7. Until it became politically incorrect, ships were referred to as she by seafarers and landlubbers

Ships, like dozens of inanimate objects, were referred to as being female for hundreds of years, by seafarers and landlubbers alike. In 1941 Adolf Hitler declared that the newest German battleship, Bismarck, was to be referred to as male, since it was too strong and powerful to be called she. The ship’s sailors ignored their Fuhrer’s command, at least in their letters home to loved ones. Ships bore many feminine designations, both in the description of the vessels themselves and in their behavior while underway. American Admiral of the Fleet and World War II leader Chester Nimitz once replied to a reporter’s query over why ships were considered feminine by sailors by claiming that it was because it cost so much money to keep them in powder and paint. No doubt such a reply would be the end of a distinguished naval career today.

Alas, the world changes. By 2003, the Chicago Manual of Style advised against referring to ships as she, preferring that a vessel be referred to as it, regardless of the characteristics it displayed to the crew aboard. Numerous other feminine references long used by sailors became equally unacceptable, to those who determinedly police such things. They ignore the fact that the Latin word for ship, and one of the roots for the word navy, is navis, a word of feminine gender. Although many sailors, past and present day, were and are determinedly sexist in describing why ships are referred to as she (Admiral Francis Foley, USN retired, declared being “slim-waisted, well stacked and ha(ving) an inviting superstructure” as being some of the reasons) ships still traverse what is often called Mother Earth. Yet to refer to a vessel as she, even as will Captain James T. Kirk of Enterprise in the 23rd century, is no longer socially acceptable.

6. Women aboard ships were considered to be a harbinger of bad luck

During the days of sail, and well into the days of steam, women aboard ships were considered by sailors to be bad luck, and the ship forced to accommodate females was courting the vilest of fates. The presence of women aboard was obviously a distraction to the crew, and the gods of the seas, winds, and storms, jealous of the momentary inattention of the sailors, would react with violent temper. Thus the presence of women invited stormy weather, which at worst placed the ship and crew at danger, and at the very least lengthened the voyage while at the same time making it far less comfortable. However, women willing to bare their breasts to the gods calmed their rage, which is one reason why so many ship’s figureheads from the days of sail were wooden effigies of busty women.

Despite the fears of sailors, whom over the centuries have proven to be a consistently superstitious clan, women put to sea throughout history. Many captains embarking on lengthy voyages took their wives and even their children with them, including onboard the men-of-war of the Napoleonic era, the so-called Age of Fighting Sail. Some of the most notorious pirates who ravaged the waters of the Caribbean and those off Madagascar were women. When one considers that sailors also once believed men who were flat-footed to be unlucky the fear of women aboard becomes less onerous. Today women are considered to be no more a harbinger of bad luck at sea than they are ashore, however much that may be. By the way, redheads of either sex were also considered to be bad luck at sea, though for reasons more vague than those for women.

5. Sailors were not supposed to whistle a happy tune while aboard

While sailors conversed over their daily tot of rum they undoubtedly discussed the difficulties they faced on the particular voyage on which they were engaged. There were many prohibitions which dictated their behavior aboard. Whistling was considered to be, most of the time, another temptation of the fates, with indiscriminate whistling causing the angry gods to increase the winds, or perhaps take them away entirely. A sailor prone to whistling was likely to cause the ire of shipmates for his mindless teasing of fate. Though possibly this longstanding nautical superstition had its origins in something slightly more down to earth. Not everyone can whistle in a manner entertaining to others. Ships were crowded, shipboard work was hard, the food was monotonous (at best), and the company was often not of one’s choosing. Nor was it always in a good mood.

Under such circumstances one can imagine tired, overworked, underfed, and thoroughly bored shipmates regarding the constant atonal attempts at whistling a tune as less than welcome. Notes repeated ad nauseam by a sailor oblivious to the rising tempers of irritated shipmates can well be imagined, as can the somewhat less than welcoming reception they were given. The bad luck realized by whistling could well have been a crack across the head with a belaying pin, easily explainable to inquisitive officers as just another shipboard accident. For centuries, inexperienced sailors were reminded by old tars that whistling aboard ship was bad luck, perhaps protecting them not from the vagaries of the sea, but from the testiness of their shipmates

4. The ship was kept clean, but usually not its crew

Ships, particularly warships, were for the most part kept scrupulously clean by their officers, not out of consideration for hygiene but rather as a means of ensuring the ship – upon which all’s lives depended – was properly maintained. Swabbing the decks exposed to the weather – cleverly called weatherdecks – followed by scrubbing them with stones known as holystones, was a several times a day occurrence as part of maintaining the ship. Sailors and swabbies have been words interchangeable for centuries as a result. Swabbing the decks caused the water to raise the grain of the wood, the rough holystones – so called because they were roughly the size and shape of a Bible – smoothed the wood and helped seal the decks, along with the tar forced between the seams. Cleaning the ship was a constant exercise.

Cleaning the crew was not. Few captains, well into the 20th century, had any regard for hygiene, in an age where daily bathing was regarded with suspicion at all levels of society. Sailors for the most part washed neither body nor clothes, the fact of being at sea considered a sufficiently close contact with water. Even the clothes issued to sailors were called slops, received from the slop chest. Beards were common because razors were not, and neither was a proclivity among seamen to use them, at least not upon themselves. Surprisingly given the state of personal hygiene, ships at sea, especially once away from land for more than a month, were usually relatively healthy, contagious illnesses such as colds having run their course.

3. Sailors created the arts of scrimshaw and macramé

The knots of macramé are the knots required of sailing ships and the sailors who manned them, including the reef knot (also known as the square knot), the reef hitch, the half hitch, the double half hitch, and other forms of knots which sailors (once they knew the ropes) tied as a matter of course, often suspended far above pitching decks, in driving rains and howling winds, as violently bucking canvas sails threatened to toss them over the side to certain death. During times of less frenetic activity sailors used the knots with scraps of line to create what was called fancy work, items both decorative and utile. It became an especially popular activity among British and American sailors during the Victorian Age, and the fancy work they created was sold to furnish the over-decorated parlors and sitting rooms of the day, particularly in port cities.

Another pastime which created products once wildly popular among landlubbers was the art of scrimshaw, created by sailors on whaling ships. The long voyages offered plenty of relatively quiet time, during which patterns and scenes were carved on the bones and ivory from whales. The carvings ranged from childishly crude to incredibly refined and shaded, using ink, or oil, or lampblack, or even tobacco juice to stain the images. Examples of scrimshaw, created by almost always illiterate sailors, can today be found in nautical museums, art museums, and in the private collections of investors. One item often decorated by sailors were the whalebones used as stays for ladies’ corsets, often carved by sailors as they sat between the stays of their ship, idling away another long day at sea.

2. Crossing the line, be it Equator, Arctic Circle, International Date Line, or other designated marker

Sailors voyage across perceived designators never seen by the land-locked, and when doing so have traditionally marked the event by celebrating the return of those who have been there before, and the initiation, through extensive humiliation, of those transgressing for the first time. At the equator lowly Polliwogs become hardened Shellbacks; when a ship travels across the Arctic Circle its crew become Polar Bears and join the Order of the Blue Nose; those who cross the International Date Line (besides either adding or subtracting a day of their lives), enter the Domain of the Golden Dragon, though American ships seldom have initiation ceremonies for the latter anymore, as US Naval operations in the Far East have become commonplace.

Initiations into the societies for having traveled where once few others did have lost much of their notoriety, political correctness having made its presence felt in those areas as well. Sailors who have made the crossing before continue to induct their crewmates venturing across the line for the first time, allowing then to enter what was once called a brotherhood, and the initiation itself is somewhat less rambunctious in nature than it once was. Once American ships crossed the equator but rarely, changing naval missions during and since World War II made such events more frequent and less noteworthy. Crossing the Arctic Circle remains, for the most part, an action undertaken by submarines, though those too are less frequent than they were during the Cold War, when American (and Soviet) submarines routinely patrolled beneath the polar ice, occasionally joined by NATO submarines from other nations.

1. Predicting the weather and decorating oneself with tattoos are nautical traditions

Nearly everyone has heard the saying, red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning. The adage, which bears a certain amount of truth, is a means of predicting the weather. A morning in which the dawn breaks red is an indication of stormy weather pending, while an evening with a glorious red sunset foretells fair weather for the succeeding 24 hours. It is a simple weather forecast, which relies on the sun setting in the west, the direction from which most weather patterns travel in the northern hemisphere. It began with sailors casting anxious eyes towards a far horizon at a time when the only scientific means of predicting weather at their disposal was a barometer, itself a device understood aboard only by the captain and perhaps a few of his officers.

Not so long ago, a sailor could be identified as such simply by the fact of his being tattooed, a practice which was in the western world almost exclusive to sailors, especially those who had visited the mysterious Orient or the islands of the South Seas. For decades the United States Navy officially frowned on the practice, due to the possibility of infection. By the early 1900s 90% of American sailors bore tattoos. An American Navy sailor in uniform today cannot have any tattoos which are visible with some exceptions, making 21st century sailors less likely to be tattooed than their civilian counterparts, at least among those of a certain age. Tattooing is another tradition of the sea brought to land, where its practitioners now surpass in number those who continue to go down to the sea in ships. 

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