False swallows

Main piece:

Sailors have a whole code, right, in the tattoos? So – your achievements, experience, your tattoos are like your resume among old sailors. Especially enlisted Navy guys. And there’s a whole symbology that is common to sailors.

For example, a pig and hen. You get them on your feet, to keep you from drowning. The thought is that pigs and hens can’t swim, so God would take pity on them and save you. This has gone back for hundreds of years.

One of the most common tattoos is a swallow – and a sailor gets one for each five thousand miles he sails.

But now we have a problem, cuz all these young guys are getting tattoos that they never earned. And if they never sail, that’s just fine but once they’re around sailors? Well, they look like fuckin’ assholes. You know how long I had to wait for my first swallow? Then I gotta see some little shit fresh off the dock who’s got four of them on his arm?

The thing is, ya gotta cover those fuckers up. Cuz if you leave them, you’re askin’ for it. From other sailors, from the sea, and from God. Sharpie, bandaids – doesn’t matter. But unless you earned it, no one wants to see it.


Ritual described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer. Randy has covered False Swallows on his own crewmen, especially during ocean yacht races.


Tattoos are part of sailing culture which are taken very seriously. Although work by Norman Collins is the most popular style, a variety of more modern tattoos exist as well.


False swallows reflect a common motif in sailing superstition – appeasing God/Davy Jones/the gods of the sea. Covering false swallows also reflects equity among crewmen and respect for seniority – two other values held highly in sailing.