Tag Archives: boat

A Captain must go down with his ship

Main Story: 

The following was a conversation between myself and the informant. The topic was on nautical traditions. I will be labeled as MH and the informant will be CP. 

MH: So what is it about the phrase “the captain will go down with its ship” ? It is always said in movies and books, but is it a real thing  ? 

CP: It absolutely is a real thing. There is a sense of pride for the captain. The ship is your ultimate partner at sea. Yes you have your crew, but the thing that keeps you safe is your ship. She shelters you, gives you a pace to sleep, a place to eat. And most importantly your ship is what lets you sail the seas freely. 

MH: So the captain going down with the ship is a sense of duty to the ship? 

CP: Sort of. Letting the ship sink alone is a sad moment. But also, the captain is the last person off the ship, well a good captain at least. For safety reasons, the captain is in charge of the ship so he is also in charge of evacuating the ship incase of emergency as he knows it best. Because of this, it ends up that in a lot of shipwrecks it is too late for the captain to escape by the time all crew and passengers are off. 

MH: So a good captain remains on the ship, and a poor one jumps ship early and lets people fight for themselves? What if the captain has a family?

CP: Pretty much. But a good captain will also view the crew as family and he is in charge of their safety and making sure they get home to their families as it is his job to get the ship from A to B safely. A good captain would not be able to go home to his family knowing he did not do everything to save his crew. 


The informant was a yacht captain for his whole life, like his grandfather. He grew up on the water and he says it is the only way of life he can accept. And he maintains that even though he loves his kids more than anything, he would have to go down with his ship if it came to that as that’s the promise he made. 


The informant is a family member of mine, and we had the conversation over dinner while I asked him about odd nautical traditions. 

My thoughts: 

A I can see how there is a sense of duty to the ship and to the crew. It does make sense that the leader goes down with the ship. I think initially the tradition sounds antiquated and dramatic. But when hearing him explain the reasoning behind it makes sense. Simply based on evacuation the procedure, if the captain is the last person to evacuate he can’t always make it off the ship in time.

A Ship Must be Christened

Main Story: 

The following is a conversation between the informant and myself. The informant will be CP and I will be MH. 

CP: Before a ship’s maiden voyage, a woman has to christen the ship. 

MH: What does that mean? 

CP: The tradition of christening or blessing a ship before its first voyage started centuries ago, when sailors would ask the gods for protections and make offerings of sorts. Eventually it evolved into a woman being named sponsor of a ship. And now it is tradition for her to break a bottle of champagne in the stern of the ship before it goes off. 

MH: Why a woman though? 

CP: The sea is often compared to women. The sea is beautiful and mysterious but also dangerous and fickle. The stereotypes of women being beautiful yet difficult transferred to the seas. Yet they are so engaging you always find yourself back with her no matter what. 


The informant was a yacht captain for his whole life, like his grandfather. He grew up on the water and he says it is the only way of life he can accept. He maintains that the sea is his first love and will always have his heart in a way that nothing would be able to, except for his children. 


The informant is a family member of mine, and we had the conversation over dinner while I asked him about odd nautical traditions.  

My thoughts: 

The sea being gendered as a female seems extremely antiquated to me and misogynistic in nature. However, there is also the narrative of the earth being a mother and the sea is tied into that. The Earth gives to the world and the seas give a lot. The ocean gave food to people, learning how to sail the seas meant new lands could be explored and new goods and foods could be found. It allowed for a strategy of escape incase of attack or incase of famine. But I also kind of like the fear and reverence for a strong female is so great amongst men that they made the sea female. 

Whistling on a boat

Main piece:

This one is a little interesting just because there’s so much controversy about what it really means. So, there’s something about whistling on a boat. Either it’s bad luck because it insults the wind, or it’s good luck cuz it calls on more wind. Of course, on a sailing ship wind is what decides where you go and how fast you get there.

But good or bad, a lot of folks say that the cook gets a whistling pass! Cuz if the cook’s down in the galley whistling, he can’t be eating all the food!


Superstition described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.


It’s quiet on boats, and many deckhands perform boring and repetitive tasks. Therefore, whistling is fairly common among new sailors. The standing rig (which holds up the mast) naturally whistles in the wind. Therefore, a comparison might be drawn between the two.

We again see the motif of insulting the gods of the Sea – as whistling may be a challenge.


Randy suspects that this tradition served as a way for more senior sailors to prevent younger deckhands from being a nuisance. Most people find others’ whistling irritating, and creating a superstition to curtail unnecessary noise would be very like most sailors.

The no-flip rule for fish

The informant told me about the following custom when I asked her about her family customs regarding food and eating.

“When we’re eating fish in my house, after we finish a big fish, after we finish the top layer, we cannot flip the fish. We have to eat from the side that we placed it on the plate. So my dad tells us the story of back in the day, when the fishermen go out to fish, when they come bring the fish home, they never flip the fish because it would be a symbol of their boat flipping upside down, and he learned that from his dad. So now whenever my mom cooks fish, we are never allowed to flip the fish over; we always have to eat it from the topside, down. So you eat the top, and then you take out the bone, and the long tail, and then you finish the fish like that. Other Chinese families do it [as well] because I think it’s passed down from my grandfather to my dad, and then my dad passes it down to us. So it’s a common thing if you ask a Taiwanese person, do you flip the fish, it would be a commonly known thing that you don’t flip the fish”

In folklore, it is well known that groups of people who interact directly with nature, and things that are out of their control, tend to have superstitions and beliefs regarding their actions. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see a belief or superstition such as the above one in a fishing culture. However, it’s interesting to see that some of these beliefs and superstitions are passed on to the next generations even though it might not even be directly relevant anymore.

Cigarette Lighter

The joke: “So there’s two people on a boat. And they have three cigarettes, but they don’t have a lighter, or any way to light them, right? So one of them looks to the other and is like ‘What do we do? There’s three cigarettes?’ So the other one takes one and throws it overboard. And the guy’s like ‘Why’d you do that, you just threw away one of our cigarettes.’ And he’s like, ‘Well now isn’t our whole boat a cigarette lighter?’”

The informant heard this joke when a friend texted it to him; presumably the friend got it from either another friend or online. The joke deals with a pun, and the clever use of wordplay. It’s kind of anti-funny, but just enough to get some laughs when the audience figures out and understands it, which is why I imagine people tell it. It took me a few seconds to get it myself.

When you flip the fish say “neighbor”

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”


A lot of Hong Kong people used to be fishermen back in the day. So you know when you eat a whole fish on a plate, you have the flip the fish when you finish one side to eat the other…So…when you flip you are supposed to say “neighbor” or “other boat” because the fish is like your own boat and it is bad luck if you flip it you know ‘cause it’s like you’re flipping your own boat. That is why you put the curse on someone else’s boat so your boat is safe and the bad luck will go to other people.

This was taught to the individual by her mother as a common table-side manner. According to the informant, this is still a common table side manner among many fisherman and people who operate at sea. She said it still practiced in her family as well.


I think this practice or folk belief is similar to how people “knock on wood” to feel better about what they said even though it will not create change. It shows the effect on belief as an idea where it does not have to be proven but it is done so the individual can “feel better.”

This folk belief is also similar to the idea of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like.” Similar to how whistling while you are at sea is bad because it will create strong wind; in this case the magic is in the action of flipping the fish where it would be similar to a boat flipping at sea.

This superstition reflects how folklore can be geographically and culturally tied to its context. In this case the tie is occupation. This belief would exist in different form if the people in Hong Kong used to be farmer or miner. It also shows how belief is contextual. If one is not eating near the ocean or on a boat, the fear would be much less in comparison to eating and flipping the fish on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

It is bad luck for women to be on a boat.

Women are not allowed on board on commercial fishing boats

The most common superstition is that women are bad luck on commercial fishing boats.  “It is bad luck to have any women on board unless she is a really good cook.” My informant stated that is really the only reason to break the rule. My informant stated that one time a fisherman’s girlfriend was on board for a trip and one of the fisherman sustained a broken ankle; the woman was blamed for this incident. My informant was told about this as the captain brought his wife aboard once, and the boat actually hit the sand, the captain’s wife was soon blamed for this.

My informant stated that this superstition basically spread throughout lineage and cannot really explain the cause of this superstition. He also stated that his boss cannot focus when his wife is onboard, and thus he compares it to bringing your wife to work everyday. This is interestingly only on commercial fishing boats. Another incident where this folklore became prevalent was on the television show, The Deadliest Catch. There was a story about how there was a problem with some of on-site women producers being on the commercial fishing boat.

My analysis of this would be that sailors and fisherman call their boats a “she” or “her,” thus the only woman that should be in their life while they are at sea, should be their boat.

Uncle Colin and the Hurricane

My informant told me a story about his Uncle Colin and the story that his family tells about the 1954 hurricane that struck Cape Cod, MA:

“I have heard from a number of people that in the Cape Cod hurricane of 1954, the sea at Buzzards Bay rose as the Atlantic Ocean swelled. When it looked as if the rising inlet next to his house may rise further and wash his house away, my Uncle Colin went out to his fishing boat with a glass of milk and a baloney sandwich and said if it was going to get his house, he couldn’t stop it and he’d rather go down in his boat. So he rowed out to the boat in the storm and waited and ate. The water rose, but never reached the house and the boat never left the mooring.”

My informant said that each time he head the story it was slightly different, but the jist of it is the same. He particularly liked the story because he was named after this particular uncle, and therefore was proud of being associated with him. The story is also quite humorous, so he often re-tells it to family during gatherings and holidays.

From my point of view, this is a story about bravery. It shows the respect that a family has for its elders and their sometimes odd, but impressive actions. It also ties the family to the property in showing their devotion to it. Uncle Colin would not sit in his boat during a hurricane unless he deeply cared about the property he was willing to risk his life for. It can also be used to teach children the values of their family.