Tag Archives: Sailing

Shellback, Golden Dragon, Golden Shellback

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 54
Occupation: Lawyer
Date of Performance/Collection: April 29
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

This is folk speech that is found in the maritime world. They are names that are given under various circumstances when sailing around the world. A shellback is a name given to someone who crosses the Equator for the first time while aboard a ship. A golden dragon is someone who crosses the dateline. The dateline is the imaginary line that runs North-South through the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of the globe as the prime meridian. Finally, a golden shellback is someone who crosses where the international date line meets the equator for the first time. These names are given to sailors to recognize their global travels. Sometimes, this is accompanied by hazing if it is the first time the sailors have received this name, such as treading water in the ocean. The informant has not crossed any of these lines by ship but was involved in the sailing community growing up and associated with people that had done this.

The informant learned about this folk speech from his uncle when he was growing up. They remember it because they had always been interested in making these achievements and traveling the world by ship. The informant always looked up to people that had done this because he thought they were hardy and real seamen/adventurers. There are other terms used for some of these accomplishments, such as a son of Neptune. There are names for people who have done none of these, like tadpoles, as well.

It is certainly an achievement to have accomplished this, but the navy and other similar organizations are notorious for hazing and rites of passage, being secluded on a boat with just other sailors. It is interesting to think about in comparison to other rites of passage within different branches of the military. Although this is a general sea term overall, it is often used frequently in navies across the globe.

A Sailor’s Proverb: Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 66
Occupation: Machinist
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/5/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): N/A

The following is CL’s interpretation of the proverb, “Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight,” in a conversation.


“Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight”:


CL: The reason why [it’s called this] is [the following]. So, think sailors setting out to port at the first daylight; if the sky was red in the morning, that meant there was a lot of dust in the air and there was a chance that as you got out to sea, you’d get rained on because of the thickness in the air. So, if you got into a storm, it was bad for the sailor. Red sky at night meant it would be safe sailing because it would probably rain that night, and in the morning, you could set sail; you’d be safe to leave the port.


EK: Interesting, so where did you learn this from?


CL: That is an old, old story, and I think it probably goes back to the middle ages or before. I don’t know if it’s European in nature or if it’s something that was developed here. I learned it from my mother, though, who for some reason knew everything about sailing and sailing stories.


EK: So, what does this story mean to you, then?


CL: Well I’m not really much of a sailor, I just know the proverb exists. The closest tie I have to it is from my mother, so I guess it connects me to her in some way. I’m not sure if it’s still implemented today, but I’d imagine it is or was a pretty big superstition for sailors.


My Interpretation:

I’ve never heard this proverb before, most likely because I’ve never come in contact with a sailor. It could be true, or maybe it was something only used back in the day, before new technology has allowed us to set sail during a little rain or thunderstorm. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a red sky; it’s possible that the redness could be from pollution- I’ve heard that the deeper the sunset, the more particles from pollution. However, it is interesting to me that this is/was such a superstition for sailors. I can only assume that in past times they would have had to be more careful when setting sail because they didn’t have the knowledge of the seas or technology that they do today that could have given them more peace of mind and less uncertainty in their travels.

Red Sky at Night, Sailors Delight; Red Sky at Dawn, Sailors Take Warning

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 74
Occupation: Consultant
Residence: Austin, Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/15/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Polish

Informant – “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at dawn, sailor’s take warning.”

Informant: “This is an old sailor’s saying. Sailors are deeply superstitious people. I’m not sure where I heard it from, it’s just always been around. I’m not sure where it comes from. Maybe it’s because the jet streams blow west to east? The general idea though is that if the sky is red in the morning, that means a storm is coming your way. If it’s red at night, then the next day will be clear.”

There is actually truth to this saying. A red sky at night means that the sun is being refracted through a lot of dust and moisture as it sets. This indicates that a high pressure system is passing, moving west. Good weather will follow. A red sky in the morning however, means that the pressure system is arriving, moving east. This indicates bad weather.

The Unprepared Sailor

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian American
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2, 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Italian

The informant related a legend his Sailing professor told him as an example of why one should always be prepared when going sailing.


There’s this guy and he’s leaving from Long Beach and he’s only going to Catalina which you can actually see when, um, you, um, leave the harbor over there and, ha, so, ya know, he… he’s a novice. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. But he thinks Oh, it’s just Catalina, I can see it um, ya know, what could go wrong?  Haha. And whenever you say that ya know, you know there’s gonna be a story after that. Um.

So anyway, um. What ends up happening was he had this um GPS system which ended up not working, um. I think what happened was first, his propeller went out. And so, his onboard battery only lasted a certain amount of hours before his GPS died. So after that died, he had no way of knowing where he was. And he had no, no motor. And after that point he didn’t really know how to sail cuz he wasn’t an expert on that ya know. He just knew how to use his, his motor.

And, uh, long story short, he wasn’t prepared at all. Only had enough for maybe lunch. Uh, couple gallons of water. And uh, after, after a while he decided he needed to start saving his food. He like had a stack of crackers that was left. [Gestures to represent about a one foot stack of crackers.] And he was out to see for probably three months. So um, he got by and survived. But um, basically what happened was maybe half of his stack of crackers went by. He was eating ya know, like one or two a day. He, he started reasoning oh, ya know, I should start using this to hunt. And, when you’re on a boat and you don’t have a fishing line the only thing you can really hunt is seagulls. So he would set out maybe like, a piece of a cracker out and hide, wait for the seagull to come then he’d take his oar and like whack it. [Mimes braining a gull with an oar.]

And uh, our teacher said that seagull meat is the worst meat to eat. It’s such salty meat and it tastes terrible. So that’s why we don’t eat seagulls. But this guy had to eat it. He, um ya know, ran out of water so the only water he was drinking was small doses of sea water which would make you go insane cuz you would dehydrate you, uh, make you hallucinate, do all kinds of crazy things.

At the end of the story, they found him three months later. He was in Costa Rica. Off the shore. And uh, so, ya know, a small ship or a small journey to Catalina ended up being this looooong journey to Costa Rica. And uh, when they found him, they said he was crazy. He was out of his mind. He thought that, that the rescuers were there to steal his food, which he didn’t really have much of. So he, when they came on board he was trying to fight them and he attacked them [Shadowboxes.] biting them and stuff. So they had to wrestle him down, restrain him, put him in one of those, like a, one of those jackets. [Wraps his arms as though in a straightjacket.]

And uh, you know, he eventually regained his senses. They got him healthy, fed him food, gave him water, got him all shaved up, ya know he had a long beard.

Uh, that’s all I really know from the story my professor told me but uh, the point of the story is: Be Prepared.


The popular graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons appears to have used a similar story as inspiration for one of its subplots. In the graphic novel, a character reads a comic book called Tales of the Black Freighter in which a sailor is shipwrecked and makes a raft out of his fallen comrades to sail home. In the process, he is driven mad by starvation and heat and ends up catching and eating the gulls that come to feast on his raft.

This is interesting in that the Graphic novel was written in 1986, well before the advent of GPS, showing that the story has likely evolved into its current version from something slightly different. The core however is still there.

Sailor Story

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): None

“My grandpa’s best friend, who is a sailor, always tells this story about a seagull. There’s this couple or this sailor out on the water and it’s a beautiful day and they’re sailing along. And the swell starts to pick up and it’s so rocky that his fake teeth fall into the water. And he can’t get it. And I guess they go back to the harbor, to the bay, and tie off the boat, and a seagull flies back over them and has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. And it’s the man’s teeth.”


The informant told me that her grandpa’s best friend is a sailor with a really corny sense of humor and she said she is pretty sure that he has fake teeth. She said that her grandpa also has fake teeth. Thus, the two of them really like retelling this story because it contains elements that they can relate to and identify with. However, the story seems to have a deeper meaning. Sailors can never be certain of how the sea will treat them and sailors can develop a rocky relationship with the sea. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing and other time’s things don’t go your way. In the story, the day starts out beautiful and the water is smooth, but then something changes and the water is suddenly rocky. The story seems to be saying that regardless of how the waters are, you need to maintain a good sense of humor about it. After all, the sailor is lucky to survive the rough conditions. Sure, he loses his teeth, but he makes it out alive, and despite the unfortunate fact that he is now toothless, he can get a good chuckle from seeing the seagull with his teeth.