an extract from
Don't Shoot the Albatross!
Nautical Myths and Superstitions


So says Long John Silver in chapter eleven of Treasure Island, as he describes the grim fates suffered by the crews of ships that had been renamed. Changing a boat's name after she's sailed has long been considered unlucky. During the Age of Sail it was difficult to find crew willing to work on renamed ships, which carried bad reputations even if nothing untoward had happened to them.

One of the most famous ships to change name and meet a sticky end was the Endurance, the ship Sir Ernest Shackleton took on his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica in 1914. Her Norwegian builders christened her Polaris, but Shackleton renamed her in honour of his family motto: 'By endurance we conquer.' A weeklong gale in the Weddell Sea turned slushy floes into pack ice, trapping the beleaguered Endurance hundreds of miles from safety. Worse was to come, because despite a reinforced hull the ship was slowly crushed by compressed ice, and eventually sank. Remarkably, every member of her crew did eventually get back to England, but they spent two years marooned on the ice first.

Renaming a boat may appear like an attempt to sneak past the gods, affect a disguise to escape their attention, avoid retribution for past misdemeanours, but deviousness like this won't go unnoticed, or unpunished, even if the unwitting boat owner renamed her out of vanity rather than guile. A proper renaming ceremony makes a transparent and open appeal to the gods to acknowledge the boat's new name, showing that there is no ulterior motive.

There are various ways to go about this (every clique of sailors has its own favoured method) but all of them should make the owner of the local off licence happy. If possible, the boat should be hauled out of the water, and the ceremony conducted when the hull is dry. The first step is to obliterate all traces of the boat's old name, wherever it can be found. The logbook and any other paperwork with the boat's name on must be burnt. The ashes should be scattered into the sea (or lake, river, canal, etc). At this point some sailors would go even further, and re-mast the boat, burning the old one. The boat's name on the stern must be scratched off, not just painted over. If she's a seagoing craft, cleanse the hull with fresh water. Ask the gods (and ask nicely) to forget the boat's old name. Then go through the christening process again, using whiskey. Give the first tot to the water, the second to the boat, but be sure to have enough left for everyone to toast the new name.

And that's the least outlandish way to rename a boat. Another technique insists the boat be scuttled with the old name, then raised with the new; this is the expensive option. Another requires the owner to sail the boat backwards for a nautical mile, reversing over the old name; this is the difficult option. Yet another suggests it's as simple as getting a virgin to urinate over the bow; this is the disgusting option. One optimistic father (who clearly doesn't read the papers) got his teenage son to do it.

Of course, many sailors don't believe renaming ceremonies work, and that they just anger the gods further with the presumptuousness of it all. For those who do believe in them, there's one cardinal rule: once a boat has been given a new name, never mention the old one again.


At sea even more than on land, words have power. Some are like invocations, and mostly of bad luck. Of the many words that should not be uttered on a boat a lot of them refer to people, animals and things that are unlucky at sea in themselves. Sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Man, on the other hand, believe it's unlucky to refer directly to any animal that has hair on its body. However, many of these forbidden words have acceptable alternatives for use on a boat - some of them are obvious nicknames, whilst others seem like a sailor's secret code.

Cat - 'scraper' (Isle of Man), 'nose shaver' (Shetlands)
Church - 'the steepled house'
Dog - 'moddey' (Isle of Man)
Deer - 'hart' (though this is a medieval term referring to stags older than five years)
Drown - 'go to Davy Jones's Locker', 'go for the long swim'
Egg - 'roundabout'
Fox - 'the red-eared one'
Goodbye - a sailor should never say anything of the sort if he ever wants to see that person again (likewise a landlubber should never say it to a sailor)
Hare - 'mauken', 'long ears' (can also be used to refer to a rabbit, though hares generally have longer ears)
Knife - 'sharpie'
Minister/priest - 'capstan', 'sky pilot'
Pig - 'grunter', 'grumphie', 'turf rooter', 'curly tail' (or just spell it out)
Rabbit - 'bunny', 'pommits' (Isle of Man), 'underground mutton' (western Britain)
Rat - 'uncle' (Isle of Man), 'long tail' (or 'lang tail' in Scotland)
Rope - 'line' (using 'rope' will supposedly awaken the spirits of the hanged)
Salmon - 'red fish', 'beastie', 'the gentleman'
Salt - 'white stuff'

Though in the interests of avoiding possible harsh consequences, it's probably safer to ignore this last one when declaring to Customs officials. Afterwards, as when any of the other words are mentioned by mistake, touch wood or invoke cold iron (see page 95) and hope misfortune passes by.

Extracted from Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions published by Adlard Coles Nautical, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing (c) Jonathan Eyers 2011

Book of the month (July 2011): 'A recommended and entertaining read.'

'Fascinating ... it's hard to read the book without feeling that if one chose to pay heed to all the superstitions, you wouldn't go to sea at all!'

'Illustrated with comical cartoons, this quirky collection of nautical myths and superstitions explores the folklore of the sea and will inform and entertain seafarer and landlubber alike.'

‘Eyers's mix of old and new superstitions, evidence and eyewitness accounts make for a diverse and entertaining read.’