Not the least of the mighty changes wrought by the advent of steam as a motive-power at sea is the alteration it has made in the superstitious notions current among seamen from the earliest days of sea-faring. In the hurry and stress of the steamboat-man’s life there is little scope for the indulgence of any fancies whatever, and the old sea-traditions have mostly died out for lack of suitable environment. Indeed, a new genus of seafarers have arisen to whom the name of sailors hardly applies; they themselves scornfully accept the designation of “sea-navvies”; and many instances are on record where, it having become necessary to make sail in heavy weather to aid the lumbering tramp in her struggle to claw off a lee-shore, or keep ahead of a following sea, the master has found to his dismay that he had not a man in his crew capable of tackling such a job.
Perhaps the first old belief to go was that sailing on a Friday was to court certain disaster. All old sailors dwell with unholy gusto upon the legend of the ship that was commenced on a Friday, finished on a Friday, named the Friday, commanded by Captain Friday, sailed on a Friday, and—foundered on the same luckless day with all hands, as a warning to all reckless shipowners and skippers never again to run counter to the eternal decrees ordaining that the day upon which the Saviour of the world was crucified should be henceforth accursed or kept holy, according to the bent of the considering mind. But steam has changed all that. When a steamer’s time for loading or discharging began to be reckoned not in days but in hours, the notion of detaining her in port for a whole day in deference to an idea became too ridiculous for entertainment, and it almost immediately died a natural death. This, of course, had its effect upon the less hastily worked sailing vessels, although there are still to be found in British sailing ships masters who would use a good deal of artifice to avoid sailing on that day. Among the Spanish, Italian, Austrian, and Greek sailing vessels, however, Friday is still held in most superstitious awe. And on Good Friday there is always a regular carnival held on board these vessels, the yards being allowed to hang at all sorts of angles, the gear flung dishevelled and loose, while an effigy of Judas is subjected to all the abuse and indignity that the lively imaginations of the seamen can devise. Finally, the effigy is besmeared with tar, a rope attached to it which is then rove through a block at the main yard-arm, it is set alight, and amid the frantic yells and execrations of the seamen it is slowly swung aloft to dangle and blaze, while the excited mariners use up their remaining energies in a wild dance.
Another superstition that still survives in sailing vessels everywhere is, strangely enough, connected with the recalcitrant prophet Jonah. It is, however, confined to his bringing misfortune upon the ship in which he sailed, and seldom is any allusion made to his miraculous engulphing by the specially prepared great fish. It does not take a long series of misfortunes overtaking a ship to convince her crew that a lineal descendant of Jonah and an inheritor of his disagreeable disqualifications is a passenger. So deeply rooted is this idea that when once it has been aroused with respect to any member of a ship’s company, that person is in evil case, and, given fitting opportunity, would actually be in danger of his life. This tinge of religious fanaticism, cropping up among a class of men who, to put it mildly, are not remarkable for their knowledge of Scripture, also shows itself in connection with the paper upon which “good words” are printed. It is an unheard-of misdemeanour on board ship to destroy or put to common use such paper. The man guilty of such an action would be looked upon with horror by his shipmates, although their current speech is usually vile and blasphemous beyond belief. And herein is to be found a curious distinction between seamen of Teutonic and Latin race, excluding Frenchmen. Despite the superstitious reverence the former pay to the written word, none of them would in time of peril dream of rushing to the opposite extreme, and after madly abusing their Bibles, throw them overboard. But the excitable Latins, after beseeching their patron saint to aid them in the most agonising tones, repeating with frenzied haste such prayers as they can remember, and promising the most costly gifts in the event of their safely reaching port again, often turn furiously upon all they have previously been worshipping, and with the most horrid blasphemies, vent their rage upon the whilom objects of their adoration. Nothing is too sacred for insult, no name too reverend for abuse, and should there be, as there often is, an image of a saint on board, it will probably be cast into the sea.
But one of the most incomprehensible forms of sea-superstition is that which has for its object that most prosaic of all sea-going people, the Finns. Russian Finns, seamen always call them, although there is far more of the Swede than the Russian about them, and their tongue is Swedish also. They are perhaps the most perfect specimens of the ideal seafarer in the world, although the Canadian runs them closely. All things that appertain to a ship seem to come easily to their doing, from the time of first laying the vessel’s keel until, with every spar, sail, and item of running gear in its place, she trips her “kellick” and leaves the harbour behind her for the other side of the world. And even then the Finn will be found to yield to none in his knowledge of navigation. Although his hands may be gnarled and split with toil, and his square, expressionless face look as if “unskilled labourer” were imprinted upon it, much difficulty would be found in the search for a keener or more correct hand at trigonometrical problems, or a better keeper of that most useful document, a ship’s log-book.
Yet to these men, by common consent, a supernatural status has been assigned. Whether among the Latins the same idea holds is somewhat doubtful, but certainly in British, American, and Scandinavian vessels Finns are always credited with characteristics which a century ago would have involved them in many unpleasantnesses. Chiefly harmless, no doubt, these weird powers, yet when your stolid shipmate is firmly believed to control the winds so masterfully as to supply his favoured friends with a quartering breeze while all the rest of the surrounding vessels have a “dead muzzler,” any affection you may have had for him is seriously liable to degenerate into fear. It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that from whatever the original idea of Finnish necromancy originally arose, a whole host of legends have grown up, many of them too trivial for print, some delightfully quaint, others not less original than lewd, but all evidently grafts of fancy upon some parent stock. Thus, while there is a rat in the ship no Finn was ever known to lose anything, because it is well known that any rat in the full possession of his faculties would be only too glad to wait upon the humblest Finn. And the reason why Finns are always fat is because they have only to go and stick their knives in the foremast to effect a total change in their meat to whatever they fancy most keenly at the time. It is well that they are mostly temperate men, since everybody knows that they can draw any liquor they like from the water-breaker by turning their cap round, and they never write letters home because the birds that hover round the ship are proud to bear their messages whithersoever they list. The catalogue of their privileges might be greatly extended were it needful, but one thing always strikes an unbiassed observer—the Finn is, almost without exception, one of the humblest, quietest of seafarers, whose sole aim is to do what he is told as well as he can, to give as little trouble as possible, and where any post of responsibility is given him to show his appreciation of it by doing two men’s work, filling up his leisure by devising schemes whereby he can do more.
Of the minor superstitions there is little to be said. Few indeed are the old sailors now afloat who would cuff a youngster’s ears for whistling, fearing that his merry note would raise a storm. Whistling for wind, however, still persists, as much a habit as the hissing of a groom while rubbing down a horse, but a very sceptical laugh would meet any one who inquired whether the whistler believed that his sifflement would make any difference to the force or direction of the wind. Fewer still are those who would now raise any objections to the presence of a clergyman on board. But the belief that a death, whether of a man or an animal, must be followed by a gale of wind is perhaps more firmly held than any other, unless it be the notion that sharks follow any ship wherein is an ailing man or woman, with horrible anticipation.