Never Sail on Friday

"Blue Peter" means ready to sail
Traditionally, sailors were a superstitious bunch. Common widely held nautical beliefs governed what to do (or avoid) on the way to the ship, preparing to sail, when to sail, as well as their on board behavior. The reason for sailors' seemingly unfounded fears is obscure, but perhaps some beliefs had a basis in experience. Seagoing superstitions probably perpetuated themselves as they furnished sailors with some tenuous feeling of stability and control in a world of uncertain weather, long voyages, zero communications, bad food and less than competent captains.

Thomas Gibbons addressed this well in "Boxing the Compass" (c. 1880):
"There is but a plank between a sailor and eternity; and perhaps the occasional realization of that fact may have had something to do with the broad grain of superstition at one time undoubtedly lurking in his nature. But whatever the cause, certainly the legendary lore of the sea is as diversified and interesting as the myths and traditions which haunt the imagination of landsmen, and it is not surprising that sailors, who observe the phenomenons of nature under such varied and impressive aspects, should be found to cling with tenacious obstinacy to their superstitious fancies. The winds, clouds, waves, sun, moon and stars have ever been invested with propitious or unlucky signs; and within a score of years we have met seamen who had perfect faith in the weather lore and traditions acquired during their ocean wanderings."
Here are some examples of common nautical beliefs:

  • It was considered bad luck for a sailor to encounter a cross eyed or flat footed person, one with red hair or a priest or other clergyman while his way to his ship.
  • A ship could not be renamed without following a prescribed official ceremony. 
  • Women aboard a ship would anger the sea and bring misfortune.
  • Hearing bells meant death aboard ship, A ship followed by a shark meant someone was going to die.
  • Killing an albatross or a dolphin brought misfortune. 
  • It was unlucky to bring scissors or an umbrella aboard. Whistling on board would bring storms.
  • Trouble came to those who cut their hair, beard or nails while at sea.
  • One always crushed egg shells before throwing them away to avoid witches using them as boats.
  • Harming sea gulls was forbidden as they were thought to hold the souls of sailors lost at sea.
  • Sailors had a great deal of faith in odd numbers. Thus, naval (and other military) salutes included an odd number of guns.
  • Ancient Greek mariners thought lightning or an an eclipse of the sun or moon to be a dire portent of evil. 
  • Icelandic sailors predicted shipwreck if a crescent moon with its horns pointed toward the earth was sighted.

One of the best known and long lived sailor's superstitions is that a ship should never sail on Friday. That's any Friday, not just Friday the 13th. This belief likely came from Christ's crucifixion having taken place on a Friday, thus making it a bad day for sailors and landlubbers alike. Respecting the day, clergy directed their followers to "await the 'morrow's sun".

Some quotations regarding sailing on Friday:
  • "As for sailing on Friday, that was out of the question. No one did that who could help it," - Cooper (1798)
  • "Seldom would a seaman then sail on Friday". - Thatcher (1821)
  • "He [the sailor] will never go to sea on Friday, if he can help it". - Cheever (1827)
  • "Many a ship has lost the tide which might have led to fortune because the captain and crew thought it unlucky to sail on Friday". - Southey (c. 1840)
  • "A Friday's sail will always fail." - Cheales (1875)

The Norse water goddess Freya was regarded as sacred by sailors, making her namesake day, Friday, holy, thus unsuitable for beginning a voyage. Chaucer, in the Knight's Tale (1386) described the day's variable weather, claiming that Friday is the best or worst day of the week. This observation is echoed in English folk proverbs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mariners could point to occurrences which they thought clearly validated their beliefs, listing all sorts of vessels that met their doom because they got underway on a Friday. Some were never seen again, lost at sea with all hands. Other Friday sailings sank or were wrecked on a Friday as well.

The other days of the week were generally regarded as safe sailing days. Sunday seems to be the best day in most cultures: "The better the day, the better the deed". Wednesday and Thursday were dedicated to the Norse gods Odin and Thor, respectively, both of whom were especially beneficial to mariners. In Spain Tuesday is unlucky: "Tuesday, don't marry, go to sea, or leave your wife".

Certain days of the month were unlucky exceptions. Some references indicate that the 13th of the month brought storms. Others say that the 4th, 5th, 13th, 16th, 19th and 24th were unlucky days. Another says of the 29th: "And on thy dark ocean way, launch the oar'd galley - few will trust the day".