Tag Archives: sailors

Renaming a Boat

Informant Information — DD

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 68
  • Occupation: Professor
  • Residence: San Pedro, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant grew up in San Pedro, CA, a port town where a large proportion of the town works on/near the water. He has sailed as a hobby and professionally for more than 50 years. He is still active in his town’s boating community and keeps up with sailing magazines, books, news, etc. The informant shared this information with me in an in-person interview.

Interviewer: 

You mentioned that it’s bad luck to rename a boat. Where and when did you first hear that?

Informant: 

So the first time I bought a sailboat, it was a 30-footer that I wanted to fix up and sail back and forth to Catalina in. The guy that sold it to me said, “Well you better not change the name because it’s really bad luck.” 

Interviewer: 

Did you take his advice and keep the boat’s original name?

Informant: 

Nope, I changed it anyway. I don’t even remember what the original name was, but I remember that I didn’t really like it. I’ve used the same name for every boat I’ve ever renamed, but I’ve never had bad luck with a boat… not even the ones that I renamed. Once an original name was actually kind of an offensive stereotype, so I think renaming that one actually gave me some good luck. 

Interviewer: 

I see! Do you think that this is a pretty common superstition?

Informant: 

Not so much anymore, just because it’s so common to sell, buy, and re-sell boats so often now… I actually know a little bit of history about this, though. Back in the old days, when records were less official and harder to keep track of, you would check in to a harbor or port of call with your boat’s name, and anything that happened was associated with that name. Back then, if you were to suddenly change the boat’s name, it would be kind of like erasing its history… suspicious, you know? You wouldn’t do that unless you had gotten into some trouble, so the renaming thing got associated with troublemakers. 

Analysis:

This is a great example of how our changing society has altered our perception of folklore. With new technological developments, records are easily accessible around the world, making it much easier to keep track of vessels, regardless of their names. The informant mentioned that there might be a trick to get rid of bad luck after changing a boat’s name, which would be an example of conversion superstition. However, he couldn’t remember any specific methods or details, so that part of the conversation was not included in the piece. 

“Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight”

Informant Information — DD

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 68
  • Occupation: Professor
  • Residence: San Pedro, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant grew up in San Pedro, CA, a port town where a large proportion of the town works on/near the water. He has sailed as a hobby and professionally for more than 50 years. He is still active in his town’s boating community and keeps up with sailing magazines, books, news, etc. The informant shared this information with me in an in-person interview.

Interviewer: 

Can you tell me about the connection between sailors and the weather? 

Informant: 

Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. The saying goes, “red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” right? I first heard that one when I started sailing over to Catalina and up and down the coast. 

It’s supposed to mean that if the sky is red in the morning, there’s an impending storm that might make sailing tough if it hits that day. If the sky is red at night, the storm has already passed. 

I don’t really know how true that is, but I believe it and I’ve definitely heard tons of other sailors say it before. 

Analysis:

In this piece, the red sky is a sign and the time of day that it appears determines whether it is a positive or negative indicator. Strangely, I’ve heard both this version, as well as the complete opposite (“Red sky at night, sailor’s fright”). If true, this could be a very useful way to forecast the weather, but it’s a bit problematic that it’s so easy to mix up the rhyming, opposite meanings (fright and delight). 

The Line Crossing Ceremony

Informant Information — DD

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 68
  • Occupation: Professor
  • Residence: San Pedro, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant grew up in San Pedro, CA, a port town where a large proportion of the town works on/near the water. He has sailed as a hobby and professionally for more than 50 years. He is still active in his town’s boating community and keeps up with sailing magazines, books, news, etc. The informant shared this information with me in an in-person interview.

Interviewer: 

Are there any “big” moments or rites of passage for sailors?

Informant: 

One big moment for all the sailors I grew up with was the first time you crossed the equator. That was one of the ones that all my friends and I looked forward to, especially because it’s a long journey from San Pedro for a little sailboat. 

Interviewer: 

Are there any special activities or rules that you have to complete/follow when you cross the equator for the first time? Who did you hear these rules from?

Informant: 

I first heard about all the excitement of crossing the equator from the older sailors at the port. I’ve heard of a few different things you can do to celebrate… the most common one is probably that you have to jump in the ocean, which I did with my friends when we finally made it there. That was really fun and exciting.

I’ve also heard of wilder things, like shaving your head or drinking an entire bottle of rum in one night… both of those things were too crazy for me. I didn’t want to shave my head and I definitely didn’t want everyone on the boat to be drunk at the same time when we were so far from home. Or worse, hungover and risking getting seasick. 

Usually though, you have to at least do something to celebrate, since it’s such a cool thing to have done as a traveler. Crossing the equator definitely brings you a little bit more respect, too. It means you’ve traveled pretty far and gained some experience, because going that far South and back is not an easy journey. 

Analysis:

I can definitely understand wanting to celebrate crossing the equator as a milestone for sailors. My informant described it as a really exciting trip but tough enough that he didn’t want to do it more than a few times in his life, so it must be a pretty uncommon and special experience. However, this is also an example of how different folk groups highlight different experiences as important or special– if you lived very close to the equator, crossing it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I would imagine that the rite of passage activities are proportionate to the journey, getting more intense as the distance to the equator increases.

Rings out of Quarters

Content:
Informant – “Sailors used to make rings out of quarters. They would set the quarter on a hard surface, standing up on it’s edge. They would tap the edge, rotate the coin, tap the edge, rotate the coin. Then they would drill a hole through the center.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard this from a navy friend of mine. He said they would tap the quarters with spoons, but I’m skeptical. I’ve made rings like these before, but I’ve always used hammers. But my friend swore they used spoons. I guess it makes sense. When you finish your chores on a ship, you have a lot a free time and nothing to do. My friend said they used to wear through spoons making these rings.”

Analysis:
Having made a ring like this myself (using a hammer), I can say that it is a very contemplative experience. There is a comfortable zen to the robotic monotony. It’s an easy task to perform on auto-pilot. You can zone out – a wonderful cure for boredom. Also, my informant’s friend was in the Navy in the 60s. There were still silver quarters in circulation then, so any ring a sailor made would be far more valuable than the quarter itself.

Shellback Initiation – A Navy Tradition

Item:

T: So that’s a- that’s where you crossing- you ride the ship til you’re crossing the equator.

Q: Uh-huh.

T:  So once you cross the equator you see King Neptune, you have to do the ceremony to become a shellback.  Once you become a shellback, next time, when you cross the equator with the new sailors, you’re gonna make them do things, so they have to go through the initiation, like, similar to that to become a shellback.  Like you have to wash the deck.  What we did is we.. what I did was we.. crawl through the ship, crawl through got sprayed water on, got jumped dunked in the water, all the stuff to become a shellback.  When you become a shellback, you better not lose your certificate or else you cannot prove it.

Q: There’s a certificate for it?

T: Yup.

T: If you cross the equator at the International Dateline, then you become a golden shell back.

Q: Is there like a worse initiation for that?

T: No, it’s the same, it’s just that you’re crossing the International Dateline instead of other place.

Q: What does the certificate look like?

T: Big.  You carry the ID card too.  I don’t know where I put my ID card.  If I go back to the ship, I have to do it again. [Laughs]

T: Back when- when it was 2013 on my deployment, I was a shellback so I was getting other people to go through it to become a shellback.  Make them dress funny, make them do things, spray water on them.  Dump into a blue- green water.  Yenno the neon sticks, the glow stick?  You break that stick into a water tank and make that water turn green.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy about his experiences during active duty.  He recalled the shellback initiation above as a humorous tradition amongst those who are stationed on a ship that crosses the equator.  The informant mentioned how those who were too humiliated to participate would not watch the initiation; they would sit in their rooms and watch TV instead.  The informant has clearly participated in the initiation before, as both an initiate and as a shellback initiating others, and clearly holds respect for this Navy tradition since he joked about how he would have to do it again since he misplaced his ID card.

 

Analysis:

Initiation rites and traditions in groups, including but definitely not limited to the military, serve to introduce individuals to a group or legitimize their membership in it.  While conducted, they can establish comradery.  For the shellback initiation, those crossing the equator for the first time may not always be new sailors.  Vice versa, the shellbacks may not always be the higher-ranking officers.  As such, it puts initiates and shellbacks on more equal standing, either in rank or authority, in the space of this tradition regardless of official rank designations.  For the prior shellbacks, they would all have a right to participate in the initiation process by spraying water or making funny requests of the initiates.  For the initiates, once they have completed the process, they would have another facet of their ship experience that they share with each other and with those who came before them.  On the other hand, initiation traditions can also alienate individuals, but in the case of those who chose not to participate as told by the informant, it can be a personal choice.  An interesting part of the shellback initiation tradition, though, is the presence of ID cards and certificates to commemorate the event.  In most initiation rites, the process itself is the sp;e legitimizing factor in becoming a particular new identity.  In this case, there is also physical documentation.  I believe this may be because of the nature of military service.  The group an individual crossed the equator for the first time with may not necessarily be the group that they cross with the next time.  As such, there needed to be another form of documentation to be able to prove one’s shellback title.  Overall, the shellback initiation tradition in the U.S. Navy is a humorous and entertaining example of how initiation rites and traditions provide the means of earning a new identity.

 

Annotation:

For examples of the shellback initiation tradition, please see pages 74-76 of Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions written by retired U.S. Navy Commander Royal W. Connell and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William P. Mack.

Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions. 6th ed., Naval Institute Press, 2004.