Sailors Superstitions & Fish Wife’s Tales

Sailor’s Superstitions and Fish Wives’ Tales

In each issue of Smoke Signals (the Chieftain Training newsletter), Doug Innes tells us about a well-known sailors’s superstition, sailing tradition, proverb or meteorological (weather) lore.

Let the cat out the bag (proverb)

(This article appeared in the October 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“To Let the Cat Out the Bag”….

……Means, “To unveil what was previously secret. “ I though this month’s tale (of 9 tails) would be short and easy as I have heard the etymology relating to the “Cat O 9 Tails,” many times. However as you will see I end up discussing three other well known UK sayings as well.

The Cat Of 9 Tails (or “Cat” for short), was a whip used by the Royal Navy in the 18th & 19th centuries, It was kept on deck in a bag.

Floggings were usually executed on deck by the bosun and witnessed by the entire crew. The offender was tied to the ship’s rail and whipped with nine leather cords, each with three knots, known as a cat o’ nine tails. The 9 whip ends left wounds on the back similar to the scratches of a cat but deeper. The cruel display was a brutal but effective way of ensuring crew discipline at sea, the practice was also used in the British Army around the same time.

So, If one sailor indiscreetly told of another sailor’s transgressions, the Captain would order the “Cat”  was taken from the bag to dish out punishment, hence the proverb, or so the story goes……

However after some research, I have begun to doubt this commonly repeated explanation. History shows the “Cat”was used on British ships from about 1700 to 1850.  After that time it fell from favour with most Captains and was only reserved for the most serious of offences. Flogging was never officially abolished by the Royal Navy, although it was suspended in 1879 (but was abolished by the British Army in 1881). 

Meanwhile the “Cat” was used in the US penal system, often with bits of metal stitched into the tails as it tore open the skin on the offender’s back and inflicted even more punishment. The US banned the practice around the same period, in 1848.

The earliest British published reference to the “Cat” appears in “Love for Love,” a play by William Congreve (1695). However it was written well before then by Johannes Agricola, who made reference to the expression, “Let the cat out of the bag” in a letter to Martin Luther  (4 May 1530), some 160-170 years before the cruel contraption became commonplace on British Naval ships

The origins of the “Cat of 9 Tails,” in fact date back to Ancient Egypt, where the cat was believed to be sacred and even back then it it was said to have 9 lives. It is likely that the ancient Egyptians adapted this cruel instrument from a previous whip that had 7 tails. Despite these early origins there is no evidence that the Cat was used at sea until 1690 and as detailed above, the phrase “Let the Cat out of the bag” was recorded far earlier.

cat- Sailing Proverb

Disappointed at having possibly disproven the nautical heritage of this well know proverb I continued researching its origins. There is a second popular theory.

Some etymologists claim the expressions derived from Medieval England were a dishonest market trader would sell a customer a pig in a bag, except inside the bag was a lower value animal, a cat. When the unsuspecting customer returned home and discovered the secret, they were said to have “let the cat out of the bag.” 

Despite considerable unsubstantiated online references to this story I don’t believe it. While a pig in a sack might squeal or oink, a cat is much lighter and is going to spit, scratch, hiss, and meow. I think it is likely this, “pig in poke,” version of the phrase has simply been spread by lazy researchers.

Having now suggested both common theories are unlikely myths, I have to determine that the origin of this phrase is likely lost, perhaps the popular proverb was a reaction or quote to a story, play or song that is long forgotten but was a common expression at the time. Perhaps it was revitalised in the 1700s when the Cat O 9 tails appeared on ships but it certainly pre dates the practice.

So while the “cat out the bag expression” is often credited to the “Cat O’ 9 Tails,” it is far more likely that the “Cat” gave its name to a completely different English expression. “There is not enough room to swing a cat in here “ indicating there was not enough room to swing the whip.

After the flogging (with the Cat O’ 9 Tails), was completed, the sailor’s lacerated back was frequently rinsed with brine or seawater, which was thought to serve as a crude antiseptic (although it is now known that seawater contains significant microbial components). Although the purpose was to control infection, the salt caused the sailor to endure additional pain, and gave rise to the expression “rubbing salt into the wound.

Furthermore the saying, “Cat got your tongue?” on an English ship meant, you were flogged into submission or into silence.

Dew on the grass (Weather Lore)

(This article appeared in the September 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Dew on the grass, no rain will come to pass”

This was a saying used frequently when I was growing up, by my grandmother and I suspect it was handed down to her from he mother, but is it true?

Well, Yes it often is…..

Dew is simply moisture on your lawn in the morning. This moisture forms as a result of condensation. Condensation is the process of a gas changing to a to a liquid. So dew is simply the result of water changing from vapour to liquid.

Dew forms when temperatures drop and the surface (grass) cools down. If the grass cools enough, the air around it also cools. Warm air holds more water vapour than cold air, so if a mass of warm air is cooled, it can no longer hold some of its water vapour. This forces water vapour in the air around grass to condense. When condensation happens, small water droplets form.

The temperature at which dew forms is called the dew point. The dew point varies widely, depending on location, weather, and time of day but if the forecast temperature and dew point are similar (or the same) expect dew in the morning.

Dew on the grass, no rain will come to pass. Weather Lore

Cloudy skies trap heat within the atmosphere, where as a clear cloudless overnight sky allow the air temperature to fall, thus a clear night will result in condensation (dew) in the later part of the night.  So a dewey morning is often a clear morning. If it remains clear it will of course remain dry. However a new weather system may follow so this traditional saying is a rough guide rather than a rule of thumb. If you apply it regularly you are likely to be wright more often than wrong.

Humid locations, will experience more dew that dry locations as there is more moisture in the air too condense.

Although cooling of the surface on a clear night causes dew, very cold weather can eliminate it. When temperatures rapidly drop below freezing (0°C / 32°F) at night, a region may reach its frost point. At the frost point, water vapour no longer condenses. It changes directly from a gas to a solid (ice). 

Son of a Gun 

(This article appeared in the August 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Son of a Gun” is one of those unusual phrases that can be used as an insult or if said to someone you are familiar with, it can be a compliment. In the UK It is often used in a friendly way to call a friend a scamp, rogue, rascal or rebel. It is also sometimes used as an expression of surprise. In the US the phrase is often used as a politer version of “Son of a Bitch,” originally used to describe someone born to a whore (outside of wedlock).

In 1864, The American Medical Weekly printed a story about a woman impregnated by a bullet that went through a soldier’s testicles and into her womb. The story was a joke written by Dr. Legrand G. Capers; some people who read the weekly failed to realise that the story was a joke. This has lead to 170 years of people re telling the joke as fact and claiming this was the source of the expression. The expression pre dates the article by many years.

There are two common and plausible theories as to where the phrase came from. Some etymologists believe the phrase originally meant, son of a soldier, again born outside of wedlock, some argue it has nautical beginnings.

200 years ago the Royal Navy permitted non serving women aboard ships. Some would be officers wives/mistress’s and many would be whores that accompanied sailors. If the latter were pregnant, she may give berth at sea. This would take place on the gun deck where the sailors slept. Thus a Son of a Gun was a boy born at sea who was the son of a whore and his paternity was unknown. In the ship’s log his father would be recorded as “the gun.”

This is documented in Admiral William Smyth’s 1867 book, The Sailor’s Word-Book, which states “Son of a gun, an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea…

Son of a Gun Sailing Proverb

Some etymologist argue that the phrase has a military background and they site printed texts that pre date Smyth’s book as evidence.

The earliest printed use of the phrase I have found was in the British Apollo (a short lived London newspaper), printed 7 July 1708. The paper was edited by Aaron Hill and Marshall Smith. Neither of these gentlemen had a military background, however Smith had previously travelled by sea from the UK to South Africa to Australia and back, a considerable passage even today. He may well have picked up the phrase at sea.

I believe this rhyming phrase evolved from more than one source and probably has a nautical and a military background.

40 Days of Rain (Weather Lore)

(This article appeared in the July 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

 “St. Swithin’s Day if thou be fair, ‘Twill rain for forty days no mair; St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain.”

An old British tradition is that we can use St. Swithan’s Day (15 July) to forecast the rest of the summer. The superstition says that if St Swithan’s Day is dry, the next forty days will also be dry, If however it rains, the rain will continue for forty days (i.e. through the rest of July and August)

So here is the bad news, St. Swithan’s Day (Saturday 15 July) was an uncharacteristically wet and windy day for most of the British Isles. So are we doomed to 40 days of rain?

Let us first analyse where this forecast tool came from and if there is any meteorological truth to the superstition.

The fact is, there is some truth to it. Around the middle of July, the high altitude Polar Front Jet Stream (area of fast flowing air) generally settles into a pattern which, in the majority of years, holds reasonably steady until the end of August. When the jet stream lies north of the British Isles we are on the warm side and continental high pressure is able to move in. When the jet stream lies across or south of the British Isles, we are on the cold side and Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems predominate.

So where is the Polar Front jet steam? For most of June (2023) the Jet Stream was North of the UK, which encouraged high pressure, settled weather and the hottest June ever on record to its South and across the UK. Meanwhile poor old Iceland to the North of the Jet Stream was hit by successive barrelling lows pressure systems. In the last few days of June and early July the Jet Stream moved South over central England, (see image below) bringing with it a series of low pressure systems that in turn have brought us showers and gusty conditions. 

At the time of writing, 16 July (day after St. Swithan’s Day), the Jet Stream has moved further South than the image above and is now sat over the English Channel and Northern France delivering us a series of Atlantic depressions. While this Atlantic weather is much colder than June, it is warm weather compared with the other alternative (Arctic air masses) which are more predominate when the Arctic region rapidly cools in the winter months

The Polar Front Jet Stream is forecast to stubbornly remain right where it is for most of July, giving Southern Europe a summer heatwave but not for us back in Blighty.

For the sailors among us this is good news as the cold side of the Jet Stream may bring showers but is likely to bring predominantly West or South Westerly winds for the Fastnet Race and Cowes Week. For the powerboaters who prefer calmer days you should have taken advantage of June’s heatwave while you had it. I am hopeful that the latter part of August will be dryer.

So is the saying true. Well, “Yes,” it has some scientific reasoning behind it, proven by the fact the Jet Stream is likely to remain roughly where it currently is for a while, But “No,” the saying is too general. While we should expect our weather to be dictated by Low Pressure systems for the next few weeks that does not mean rain every day!

Touch and Go

(This article appeared in the June 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

When we use the phrase, “Touch and Go,” we usually mean we are uncertain of success. By way of example,

“It was touch and go whether the business would survive the pandemic.”

The phrase is often associated with things that are risky, close or potentially dangerous.

Etymologists have put forward two historical written references to the phrase and while both are similar they do not tell us the true origin.

Admiral William Smyth’s marine dictionary of 1865 (a wonderful text available online for free) gives the definition, “Said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.”

Meanwhile Hotten’s dictionary of 1859 claims the term came from coach men to describe their ability tome contact with another coach but not damage the wheels of their own coach.

It is likely however that these coachmen borrowed the phrase from boat men. as there is a much earlier written reference from an Admiralty court case in 1817 which noted that a temporary touching of the keel on the sea floor “has been vulgarly described” as a touch and go.”

Although the phrase was clearly used by seaman in the early 1800s `i was informed by salty old sea dog the phrase was first coined among  the  boatmen of the Norfolk Broads.

The “touch” part of the phrase initially referred to a vessel touching the seabed. This could lead to disaster or could be harmless. So a touch was a narrow escape.

The “and go” part of the expression was added in the Broads where merchants used sailing barges to carry goods up small canals. These barges would sail as close to the bank as they could dangling an anchor off the bow and when the anchor ”touched” the bank they would “go” (tack) before the vessel grounded. “Touch and Go,” was therefore the closest you could manoeuvre your vessel to a hazard while avoiding ruin.

The Flying Dutchman

(This article appeared in the May 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Many of you will know the Flying Dutchman as a class of high performance sailing dinghy first built in the 1950s and an Olympic class from 1960-1992. Many of you will also recognise the name from the Disney film series Pirates of the Caribbean, however as I have written previously, The Pirates of the Caribbean films often re write historical legend for their own story lines.

The Flying Dutchman was believed by sailors to be a ghost ship and seeing it was considered very bad luck. The ship was doomed never to make port and has been sailing the oceans for over 300 years.

In the 17th century, the Flying Dutchman was a Dutch merchant ship, captained by Captain Hendrick Van Der Decken. In 1680, the Flying Dutchman was on passage from Amsterdam to Dutch East Indies. While attempting to round the Cape (of Good Hope), the ship endured a raging storm. It is said that the Captain cursed the gods.

As penance for his blashemy he was forced to sail the Southern Ocean forever, never able to .find a harbour. His only redemption will come when he convinces another Captain to take a letter from him begging forgiveness. This is a cruel trick played by the gods as anyone who sees the Flying Dutchman is doomed to bad luck themselves so finding a Captain able to take the letter is impossible.

Inspired by this story Richard Wagner wrote his famous opera Der Fliegender Hollander. (The Flying Dutchman).

The Flying Dutchman Sailors superstition

There are dozens of reported sightings of the Flying Dutchman but the most famous was recorded in 1881 by eye-witness Prince George (later crowned King George V). Whilst serving as a naval cadet onboard HMS Bacchante, the Prince logged;

July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her … At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.

That log is now preserved in Royal Navy archives is often quoted as evidence of the bad luck that falls upon anyone who sees this ghost ship

Sail the Seven Seas

(This article appeared in the April 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

In maritime history the fish wives’ phrase “He has sailed the Seven Seas,” implied a sailor had sailed all the seas of the worlds, i.e. he had extensive experience, a bit like the more modern phase,”he has thousands of miles under his belt”

But which sea constitute the seven seas? In modern days they are generally considered the 7 Oceanic Regions, (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Southern Ocean, North Pacific, South Pacific, Arctic Ocean and Indian Ocean).

Never the less, there is considerable evidence that the phrase, “Seven Seas” pre dates mankind’s knowledge of the various oceans. The “Seven Seas” phrase has its history in several cultures.

The earliest known reference of the Seven Seas is within the Sumerian Temple Hymns (circa 2300 BC). 

20 centuries later The Babylonian Talmud, written between 500 BC and 500 AD mentions Seven Seas and four rivers that surround the land of Israel. The Talmudic Seven Seas included the Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea, Red Sea, Birkat Ram, Lake Hula, the formerly flooded Al-Ghab Plain and Mediterranean Sea.

In Roman times around 50AD, Pliny the Elder, wrote about “septem maria” (Latin for seven Seas) which were The navigable network in the mouths of the Po River on the Adriatic shore

800 years later still, In Arabic Maritime history the seven seas were the seas Arabic merchants encountered on their trading routes East. They are the places where Islam spread and is widely practised. In the 9th century, Syrian Islamic scholar, Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. wrote: Whoever wants to go to China must cross seven seas, each one with its own colour and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it. The Seas he referenced were The Persian Gulf,  Arabian Sea , Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca, Singapore Strait,  Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea

Around the same time the Persians referred to the Amu River as the Seven Seas. In its upper course, the River forms part of Afghanistan’s Northern border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. In ancient history, the river was regarded as the boundary of Greater Iran with “Turan”, which roughly corresponded to present-day Central Asia.

In British Colonial times the Clipper Ship Tea Route from China to England was the longest trade route in the world. It took sailors through Dutch East Indies Seven Seas of: Banda Sea, Celebes Sea, Flores Sea, Java Sea, South China Sea, Sulu Sea, and Timor Sea. If someone had sailed the Seven Seas it meant they had literally sailed to, and returned from, the other side of the world.

The Seven Seas

It is interesting to note that despite Hollywood movies depicting the phrase as being from the Caribbean era of Pirates the phrase in fact has historical links well to the East of the UK and well before the Caribbean pirates era. For many culture it meant, “The entire world.” In some cultures “seven, ‘was probably interpreted as “many.”

In more modern culture, The Seven Seas is a book of poetry by Rudyard Kipling published 1896. Rock music lovers will know The Queen track, Seven Seas of Rhys. It was the chart success of this record which convinced Freddie Mercury  to make Queen his full time job.


(This article appeared in the March 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Grog is known across the world as a slang term for alcohol. In the modern world the terms has slightly different meanings across different cultures;

In Australia and New Zealand the “Grog Shop” is slang for an alcohol retailer. In parts of the USA, “The Grog,” was the name for a bowl of mixed spirits that was consumed as a penalty for those who broke the etiquette of certain drinking games.  In North Germany, Grog is a classic winter drink from “East Frisia,” made from rum, sugar and water and heated to boiling point. In Swedish, a “grogg” is a highball drink.

In Arthur Ransom’s 1930’s sailing novel, “Swallows and Amazons,”the children adopted the term to mean Ginger Bear instead of Rum.

Clearly all of these meaning are related so where did the term come from? Well it may surprise you to know, “Grog,” was short for Grosgrain ribbon, a type of fabric defined by its weft being heavier than its weave. Let me explain…..

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was common practice for sailors on long voyages to sweeten casks of stagnated drinking water with beer or wine due to the awful taste. When Britain captured Jamaica from Spain  in 1655, beer was soon replaced with the sweater drink, rum.  This stronger alcohol, brought its own problems on board ships. In 1740 Royal Naval Vice Admiral Edward Veron looked to solve the alcohol related problems on board by regulating every sailor’s consumption. He set the daily rum issue at one-half imperial pint of rum, mixed with one imperial quart of water, a water-to-rum ratio of 4:1. Half the ration was issued before noon and the remainder after the end of the working day.

Edward Vernon’s nickname was ‘Old Grog” as he wore a distinctive Grogram Cloak. By 1749 the term “grog” had become common place to describe the rum ration instigated by Old Grog (the man in the grograin coat).

Grog sailing tradition

In 1756 Grog became a standard procedure across the whole Royal Navy and the rum ration remained part of a sailors’s life until it was done away with as recently as 1970. The measure was reduced several term, over the years but on 28 January 1970, MPs in the House of Commons joined in the very emotional  Great Rum Debate. They voted in favour of ending the rum ration. 31 July 1970 was named Black Tot day as it was the final day of the rum ration

Although Grog traditionally meant rum, the term today can be used as a general term for any liquor and someone who acts drunk or shaky can be called “groggy.”

The Albatross & The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

(This article appeared in the February 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

The Albatross is a large sea bird with an impressive wingspan of up to 3m. It is common on the Southern Ocean, although three of the twenty two species of Albatross are found in the North Pacific and there is a tropical species of Albatross that breeds in the Galapagos Islands.

The Albatross sailors superstition

For many centuries sailors believed that sea birds brought good luck and particularly so, the impressive albatross.  Sailors believed that the  bird carried the souls of dead sailors and theses souls had come to protect the ship on passage or bring much needed wind for their sails.

Conversely to kill an albatross brought bad luck. 

Growing up in the 1980s, I remember an Iron Maiden track- “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which told the story of a sailor who killed an albatross and was forced by his crew mates to wear the dead bird around his neck.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner Sailors Superstition

Hence the phrase, “An Albatross around your neck”, meaning metaphorically a psychological burden hanging around your neck, or something holding you back, similar to the phrases, “a mill-stone around your neck” or “A monkey on one’s back”.

The more cultured readers among you will recognise that Iron Maiden took their inspiration from Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem of the same name “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The heavy metal track and the classic poem tell the same story, hence the modern metaphor. Although the Albatross was clearly revered as a sign of good omen for many centuries before the poem, I can not find any references of an albatross around one’s neck which pre dates the poem, so I believe that to be the source of this metaphor


(This article appeared in the January 2023 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

While Pirates (privateers) of the 18th and 19th century are often glamorised by children’s pirate themed parties and movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” they were of course thieves and ruthless murderers. We are well versed with the fancy dress stereo types such as the eye patch, the hook and the gold earring and I have written about some of these items before, but to date we have not considered one of the best known stereo types, the Jolly Roger.

Myth and legend tells us that a ship flying the black flag featuring the skull and crossbones was feared, as if captured by it you would face certain death. This legend has however lost some if its truth as it has evolved. The name “Jolly Roger,” probably comes from the French phrase “Joli Rouge,” which means Pretty Red. This related to the real meaning of the original pirate flags. 

The earliest pirate flags of the 16th and 17th century were simply blood red which signalled battle was about to commence and “no quarter given” i.e. no mercy would be shown and no life would be spared. The Jolly Rouge was flown by French pirates and was intended to install fear upon any ship that they attacked. In the late 1680s to early 1700s two evolutions took place, firstly skeletons were added to these blood red flags to further menace their victims and secondly some privateers began flying the black flag which signalled mercy would be given to those who surrendered without a fight (i.e. they would be allowed to live).

By 1720 the Term “Jolly Roger” was common place across the English speaking parts of the Caribbean as the name of a Pirate’s flag, regardless of whether it was red or black. The skull and crossbones had also become common, but is was the red flag that originally signalled death not the back flag as stories now depict.

The pirate’s red flag later moved ashore and was famously used in the battle of the Alamo (1836) by General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s to let his Texan opposition know that he intended to spare no-one. Red went on to become the warning colour of the American rail roads and later still the traffic lights we use today. The expression, “it raised a red flag” most likely gets its heritage from the 17th century pirates, as it signifies a problem that you should pay attention to.


Having gained the meaning of “danger”, the red flag is now widely used for lots of purposes such as live firing in the military and dangerous conditions on a beach. In the marine world, it is code flag B Bravo”, which means ‘I am taking in, discharging, or carrying dangerous goods.  

The black flag meanwhile does not exist among the International code signals. However in yacht racing, the black flag is the harshest of all signals a race officer can make to a fleet. It means that any boat on the course side of the start line within a minute prior to the start is disqualified (DSQ) and if after the start, the race is later abandoned and re sailed for any reason the offenders are still DSQ and if an offender does not realise they are an offender and continues racing they shall not be allowed to discard that DSQ from their overall result. For some race teams it is known as the “black flag of death,” as it has literally killed their overall result at a regatta.


(This article appeared in the December 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Time and Tide Waits for No Man? and “Tide Waits for No Man,” is an old English proverb. Its meaning seams obvious to those who have even the most basic understanding of the tide but does it really mean what we think?

This proverb refers to the fact that opportunities do not wait around and highlights that some things (berth, death, the rising of the sun each morning etc.) are as predictable as the passage of time. Theses things are predictable and no-one can control them. Sailors are well aware that the tide is predictable, however the saying  did not always refer to the tides of the ocean.

An older  variation of the saying is ‘Time and Tide Wait for None” however an even older version of the proverb is, ”Tide waits for None.” It is likely that this expression has in fact changed its meaning over the last thousand years or so, as long ago, “Tide” meant a period of time, (i.e. Yuletide is the time of Christmas). So the proverb originally referred to “time” using the older meaning of the word “tide.” Conveniently, the proverb’s tidal implication has been aided by the fact that nautical tides are predictable. Sea tides certainly wait for no one.

Time_and_Tide Sailing Proverb

The proverb is commonly attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer as it appears circa 1395 in his Prologue to the Clerk’s Tale, (from his book The Canterbury Tales). However despite what the history books (and internet) tell us and while Chaucer did use the phrase there are several recognised quotes/references that pre-date Chaucer’s life. The earliest written reference we are aware of is by Saint Mahrer in 1225, however it is likely that this proverb is in fact much older and perhaps not even originally English, but imported from mainland Europe or further East.


(This article appeared in the November 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

In a former life I was a jobbing freelance Yachting Instructor teaching at various schools around the Solent. One Sunday evening I met my new crew at the Training Centre and took them down to the training yacht. One of the crew, a Coastal Skipper candidate refused to board the boat. I took him aside and he explained that he would not sail on a green boat as it was bad luck!

I had never heard such nonsense, and after I failed to persuade him, he left the course before it had even really started. The remaining four crew and I set sail for Cowes that evening. The following day we sailed to Lymington. We were manoeuvring under engine, by the Town Quay, when the propeller fell off the propeller shaft and we had to come alongside the raft of yachts without an engine. An hour later we short tacked back out the harbour and back to the school in order to swap yachts. While my crew sailed the boat admirably, short tacking out the Lym, dodging ferries at low tide does increase the heart rate slightly. It appeared that my Coastal Skipper candidate’s mistrust of green boats had been validated!

In the intervening 2 decades since, I have heard many other sailors comment that a green boat is unlucky and each time I hear it, I smile. But where does this distrust of “Green” come from? Regular readers will remember a brief comment I made about the colour of bananas in a previous fish wife’s tale. Here is the promised follow up;

On traditional wooden ships, green was the colour of mould, so a boat that was “green” (on the inside) was literally decaying beneath the sailors feet. Hence why a ship should not be green!

Mould of course was not limited just to timber, if rations tuned green then sailors would fall ill or starve. But green was feared by sailors for other reasons too. Land is green from trees and grass and sailors feared grounding their ship on land when sailing in unfamiliar waters. Furthermore the practice in the Royal Navy, when an officer died at sea was to take him ashore to his family rather than perform a burial at sea. On a long passage this would lead to festering green corpses on board which often caused disease. Green also represented the seaweed on the seabed (aka Davey Jones Locker).

Unlucky_Green_Ship- sailors superstition

A more famous Green ship was of course the “Ever Given” which made headlines by blocking the Suez Canal for 6 days in March 2021. While I have no doubt, that event further fuelled the beliefs of my former Coastal Skipper candidate I am sure there an equal proportion of maritime disasters have occurred for all colours of ship.


(This article appeared in the October 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Davey Jones Locker is a sailor’s metaphor for the sea bed. The final resting place for those who drown or for ships that sink on the high seas.

While Davey Jones was made famous among the non seafaring younger generations by the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, Davey Jones Locker is generally thought to have really taken hold as a figure of speech in the UK in the 19th century.

However the expression is actually much older. Daniel Defoe (author, Robinson Cruse) referred to Davey Jones Locker as far back as 1726, in his book, “Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts”.

Scottish author Tobias Smollett refers to Davey Jones again in the “Adventure of Peregrine Pickle” (published 1751). In 1812, a musical pantomime ‘Davy Jones’s Locker,” was performed at the West End (London)

BY the 1900s the term was very common and features in many literary classics. Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick,” (published 1851), features Davy Jones, as did  Charles Dickens’s, “Bleak House” (1852), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s, “Treasure Island” (1883). So what is the origin of Davie Jones and his famous locker?

Davy Jones Locker-Sailing-tradition, proverb sailors superstition
“Davy Jones’ Locker,” John Tenniel (1892)

A popular view is that Jones was an adaption of Jonah, a prophet who was thrown  into the sea and that David came from Duffer (someone who’s not used to ships and who falls overboard). Others claim that David Jones lived in the 1630s as a pirate on the Indian Ocean, although many historians refute this.

There is evidence that a David Jones in the 17th century was a British publican and there are stories that he threw drunken sailors into his ale locker (basement) and then sold them to be drafted to ships. How true the second part is no one knows. There are also theories that the same publican, David Jones went on to be the Indian Ocean pirate mentioned above. There are of course modern day pubs all over the word named Davy Jones Locker and 1 or 2 “claim” to have had this name for centuries. 

There are some Welsh sailors who point to a different origin, they claim their Patron Saint (St, David) is also Saint of the Sea. Jones of course is a very common Welsh name (nearly 6% of Welsh people share this surname).

The truth is, the “Davy Jones Locker” metaphor has been so widely used for so long that we don’t actually know where it truly originated from., but the Jonah explanation is generally considered the most likely.


(This article appeared in the September 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Sailors would often wear a gold earring. It had two benefits. To the sailor it ensured he would never be skint. Even if he went ashore and spent all his money in the port tavern he would always have the means to buy his way out of trouble.

To the Captain (the ship owner) a crew man displaying a gold ring was guaranteeing  that payment would be forthcoming if that crewman caused trouble that had to be paid for or if he died in port and there was a cost of burial ashore. Thus the sailor showing off his gold earring was more employable than one without.

Pirate Gold Earring Sailors superstition sailing tradition

Gold earrings were also believed to bring good health, in particular the precious metal was said to improve eyesight and hearing. The later was probably due to the practice onboard some warships where sailors hung wax from their earring. When ordered to fire a cannon they would stuff the wax into their ear (an early ear plug/ear defender).


 (Sailing Superstition)

(This article appeared in the August 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Everyone has heard that Friday 13th is unlucky, however many sailors have considered any Friday a bad day to put to sea. Captains would often delay departure til the next day, even at the cost of losing out on favourable winds and tides. This is one of the oldest superstitions I have so far written about. 

The ship, Wellesley, leaving for the West Indies in 1848, was recalled by the Port Admiral and did not leave until the following day to avoid the perceived bad luck of a Friday departure. The King of Poland, in 1533, used to refuse to sail on either Monday or Friday despite how pressing matters of state may be.

It is commonly thought that this belief dates back to the crucifixion of Jesus which is said to have taken place on a Friday. (Just as Friday 13th probably relates to Judas being the 13th person to sit at the last supper). Other cultures have similar stories. In Norse mythology there were originally 12 gods, then Loki a 13th good sat down at the table in Valhalla and his mischief brought bad luck. There is however only circumstantial evidence that the Friday superstition derives from Jesus’ crucifixion.

Setting sail on a Friday sailors superstition
The Last Supper- Leonardo da Vinci

Looking further into history, The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes was proclaimed by the Babylonians circa 1770 B.C. It contained a collection of 282 rules, each numbered but it omitted rule number 13. Was 13 already established as an unlucky number some 18 centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ or was this simply an admin error?

Leaving the number 13 aside, why are Fridays considered  unlucky by sailors? We should be mindful that some sailors considered putting to sea on a Thursday (Norse God of storms, Thor’s day) unlucky, (RMS Titanic set sail from Ireland on her fateful voyage on Thursday 11 April 1912). Other sailors would not start a passage on the first Monday in April (the day Cain killed Abel) for fear of bad luck, some believed a ship should not slip lines on the second Monday in August (the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed), and others would not depart on the 31 December (the day on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself). Sailors over the centuries have however often believed there is one lucky Friday to set sail and that is Good Friday.

Considering the biblical references of these other “unlucky sailing days” it is likely that the Friday superstition does indeed relate to Jesus. It was not just sailors of old who felt suspicious of Fridays.  In Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th Century, he says “and on a Friday fell all this mischance”

WHY IS IT BAD LUCK TO RE NAME A BOAT? (Sailing Superstition)

(This article appeared in the July 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

This tradition is centuries old. In fact it is so old that it is difficult to know exactly where the myth came from. Legend says that every sea going vessel when it is christened is entered into Poseidon’s (Neptune’s) Ledger of the Deep. If you re name a boat, then the gods think you are trying to get something past them and punish you and your boat accordingly. A variation of this myth is that if you re name a boat and are not therefore on Poseidon’s scroll (Ledger), he would be unaware of your boat and unable to look after you as you crossed the oceans.

Bad Luck sailors superstition

It is said that the only safe way to re name a vessel is to hold a re naming ceremony and pay your respects to Posidon the God of the Sea, who will in turn correct his Ledger.

In truth, in days of old, a merchant vessel would have a reputation within those ports that it visited and around the globe. If a Captain changed the name of his ship it was thought that he was trying to hide that reputation and was therefore up to something sinister, this in turn led to the Captain, crew and merchants of re named ships being distrusted and mis treated in port. Thus if a new ship owner of a second hand ship wanted to change the name of that ship he would hold a big party so that everyone in the port would be aware of the name change and sailors visiting others ports would spread the word about how good the party/re naming ceremony was.


(This article appeared in the June 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

This particular “Fish Wife’s Tale, “is less nautical than most Met. Lore that I have written about. The exact origin is unknown but it is likely to have first been quoted by farmers or shepherd’s on mainland UK.

Rain cloud weather lore

“Black smoke,” refers to dark rain clouds. The usually white cumulus clouds appear dark due to a combination of two reason. Firstly the more moisture they contain the darker they look and secondly the high volume of these clouds blocks sunlight and cause a shadow over other clouds. Lots of moisture (water droplets) within clouds is a sure sign of impending rain, hence the need for the cloak (or coat).


(This article appeared in the March 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Many sailors associate high pressure with calm conditions and fair weather. In the summer this usually mean’s warm calm weather, in the winter this could be an arctic high and consequently cold temperatures but again very settled weather. This particular weather lore assume that wind is required to create clouds and in term perception, therefore no wind= no rain etc. makes sense.


The high pressure discourages air to rise so basic weather phenomenons such as the sea breeze are less likely to occur, particularly during the winter and at the shoulders of the UK season, when the sun is nearer the equator than our Northern latitudes.


(This article appeared in the February 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Trace in the sky the painter’s brush,
 The winds around you soon will rush.”

The “painter’s brush” refers to high cirrus clouds. These are a “text book” first sign of a frontal depression and therefore an increase in wind is likely.

While the current weather is likely to appear fair, this is our warning of high altitude moisture and instability. This is a sign of likely wind and wet weather approaching by way of a low pressure system and weather front. Over the next 12-24 hours you are likely to see the barometer fall, the temperature drop, the wind freshen and the clouds to the West lower and thicken. 

ARE BANANAS BAD LUCK ON A BOAT? (Sailing Superstition)

(This article appeared in the December 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

It is well-known that bananas are considered bad luck onboard a boat, but where did this superstition come from?

The belief dates back to the 1700s when merchant ships were voyaging back from the Caribbean to Europe. Some ships were lost at sea, others made it but their fruits were spoiled. What those early Trans Atlantic merchants did not realise is that bananas give off a gas, ethylene (aka Ethene). Ethylene in turn causes other fruits to ripen quicker which in turn causes them to go off sooner.


Furthermore merchants would always seek out fruit that had not yet ripened, in order to have it ripe by the time they reached the markets of the UK. In looking for un-ripened fruit they would select green bananas. Green of course is also considered unlucky, but more of that another month……….


(Sailing Superstition)

(This article appeared in the November 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

While the black cat is a symbol of halloween and witchcraft to some and a sign of bad luck in many cultures, the tradition among British and Irish sailors was that a cat on board the ship would bring good luck. As such the “Ship’s cat,” was well looked after.

There is some logic to this superstition.

Cats are adept at hunting rodents which if not managed would chew threw warps, damage food stores and spread disease on board the ship. It is very likely that sailing ships who carried a cat were considered lucky as they were more likely to arrive in port healthy.Ship’s cat

A study published by the University of Leuven in 2017 provides considerable evidence that the DNA of Egyptian cats made its way to Northern Europe via merchant ships. The same geneticists concluded that cats were carried on trading ships by the Vikings around the 8th to 11th centuries.


(This article appeared in the september 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When smoke descends, good weather ends.”

This month’s fish wives’ tale is relevant to those of us communicating by smoke signals. A chimney or bonfire can help tell us what is coming our way.

Smoke from a fire will rise due to the heat from the fire but if it falls back to the ground, downwind of the fire its is a sign of low pressure

As atmospheric pressure falls (due to an approaching low pressure system/depresison) smoke absorbs moisture from the air and becomes heavier, therefore indicating the weather will turn for the worse. Conversely when we have  higher pressure (usually associated with drier and more settled weather) smoke will rise vertically.



(This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When windows won’t open and the salt clogs the shaker,

The weather will favour the umbrella maker!”

Ignoring the rather non marine reference (umbrella), this fish wife’s tale is based on simple science. If there is moisture in the air it causes wood to swell. As a result shed doors, wooden window, hatches etc. can jam. High moisture in the air is more likely to lead to rain.

Meanwhile salt attracts moisture, which then makes it clumpy. So a clogged shaker signifies moisture in the air, which in turn may again mean rain.


(This article appeared in the July 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When the wind is out of the East, 
‘Tis neither good for man nor beast.” 

An early reference to Easterly winds features in Chapters 10 and 14 of Exodus, where Moses summons the East wind to bring the locusts that plague Egypt and again to part the Red Sea so that the Children of Israel can escape Pharaoh’s armies.  It is not the place of a mere Sailing Instructor to comment on the accuracy of the “good book,” so I will reframe, however I do believe there’s a more likely explanations for this particular fishwives tale.

Weather Lore

Many readers will remember the media’s “The Beast from the East,” in 2018 and 2020. It is of course the same “tale,” just rebranded (the famous, “Beast from the East,” in 2018 was also assisted by a deep Atlantic depression, Storm Emma). An Easterly wind (for us Brits), is common in winter and is caused by a large high pressure system (anticyclone) centred over Scandinavia. This anticyclone sends us bitterly cold dry Easterly winds from Siberia (cold polar dry continental air). As these winds cross the North Sea they pick up moisture and can cause rain and snow in Northern England and Scotland. Further South the air is often drier as the English Channel is so much smaller than the North Sea. Additionally as cool air around a high descends this stops clouds forming (which would otherwise trap warm air from the daytime sun near the earth’s surface) this causes the night to be colder still.


(This article appeared in the June 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When the wind backs; and the weather glass falls
Prepare yourself for gales and squalls.”

A backing wind is defined as wind that is changing direction in a counterclockwise direction—usually starting in the west, then changing to the southwest, south, and then southeast. A backing wind indicates the approach of a low pressure system (or Atlantic depression) from the southwest.

The “weather glass” refers to the barometer.  When the barometer (weather glass) falls, atmospheric pressure is falling, signalling the approach of a low pressure system. The further it falls the bigger the winds. 

A similar rhyme is: 

“When the glass falls low, Prepare for a blow;
When it rises high. Let all your kites fly.”

Again, the “glass” referred to here represents a barometer, which measures air pressure. High pressure means fair weather; low pressure indicates rain or storms. In lighter wind cruising yachts will of course fly their spinnakers (kites) which would be over powered in a storm (low pressure)

Ships barometer
Ship’s barometer


(This article appeared in the May 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Rain before seven,  fine by eleven.”

This very British fish wife’s tale refers to the times 0700 and 1100. This particular weather lore assumes the rain is caused by a weather front of an Atlantic depression. A warm front typically moves at 10+ knots and a cold front at 20+ knots. Hence the rain associated with a front often takes 2-4 hours to pass over us. Consequently it is common to find that if you wake up to rain before 0700 it is likely to have cleared by 1100. Nonetheless we should be mindful that not all weather systems follow the text book example and there are days when it rains before 0700 and continues raining all day. On that account this particular “tale” is not as reliable a some of the others on this page.

Rain Before Seven Weather Lore

“Rain before 7” is also a well know proverb, meaning things will get better (i.e. rain now, better weather later).


(This article appeared in the April 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“A ring around the moon means rain or snow is coming soon.” 


“If there is a halo round the sun or moon, then we can all expect rain quite soon.”

There is some truth to this tale. The  halo or ring referred to in this particular fish wife’s tale is caused by the refraction of light through the ice crystals of high circus cloud.

High cirrus cloud are of course often the first sign of a depression.  A depression in turn will usually bring rain as each fronts passes.

Halo Round the Moon Weather Lore
Halo Round the Moon
Halo Round the Moon, rain coming soon Weather Lore
Halo Round the Moon, rain coming soon


However the fact that we can see a “halo round the moon,” does not mean that the resulting depression, which will follow is going to go over us. So, “Yes!” there will be rain somewhere soon, but not everyone who can see a halo round the moon is necessarily going to get wet!


(This article appeared in the January 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“If in the sky you see cliffs and towers, it won’t be long before rain and showers.”

There are a few variations of this one but they are all pretty close, another couple of common examples are;

  • When clouds appear like towers, the earth is refreshed by frequent showers”
  • When clouds are like rocks and towers, the earth is soon refreshed with showers”

Vertical Clouds usually mean “rain”

This particular fishwives tale is a pretty accurate forecasting tool and like the last issue’s, “Mares tails and Mackerel Scales,” (below), we can often use the clouds to predict what is about to happen;

Cumulonimbus, from the Latin cumulus (“heap”) and nimbus (“rainstorm”, “storm cloud“), are a dense towering vertical cloud.  

They are caused by atmospheric instability and formed by large amounts of water vapour being carried upwards by vertical air currents. Towering clouds are usually a sign of unsettled weather and thunderstorms coming soon.

A very rough rule of thumb, is that the more vertical the cloud is the more wind, the flatter the cloud (at one altitude), the less wind. Here is an image from last autumn in the Solent which told us wind was coming;

Cliffs and Towers Weather Lore
Cliffs and Towers seen from East Cowes (image by Tim Griffin)


(This article appeared in the Mid August 2020 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships, carry low sails”

A very traditional weather proverb among British and Irish seafarers, this rhyme tends to ring true.

“Lofty ships” refers to tall ships or sailboats carrying a lot of canvas.”

“Low sails” refers to the practice of reefing / reducing sail for stronger winds.

Let us not forget that the clouds are a very useful forecasting tool. “Mackerel scales and mares tails” are descriptions given to the appearance of the skies before a storm.

What are Mackerel Scales (skies)?

Mackerel scales is the name given to high level cirrocumulus clouds that are often arranged as ripples in the sky and have the appearance of the scaly skin of a fish. These high level clouds are mainly composed of ice crystals. The frequent glimpses of blue among these clouds tell us the clouds are unstable and breaking up

Mackerel Scales or Skies Weather Lore
Mackerel Scales / Mackerel Skies

What are Mares Tails?

Not to be confused with fish wifes tales! A mare is of course a horse and the comparison to mare’s tails are high altitude long, cirrus clouds, often stretched by strong high-altitude winds.

Mares Tails Weather Lore
Mares Tails (High cirrus clouds)

Both of the above help build our 3D picture or what is happening around us, and while the current weather is likely to appear fair, this is our warning of high altitude moisture and instability. This is a sign of likely wind and wet weather approaching by way of a low pressure system and weather front. Over the next 12-24 hours you are likley to see the barometer fall, the temperature drop, the wind freshen and the clouds to the West lower and thicken. So its time to catch your mackerel now before the weather deteriorates!

RED SKY AT NIGHT (Weather Lore)

(This article appeared in the late July 2020 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight Weather Lore
Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight

Probably the best known of all the Fish Wife’s Tales, is the saying

“Red sky at night Shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning Sailors take warning”

There are several variations and the words Sailor and Shepherd are often interchanged, but where does it come from? Is it a useful forecasting tool and should it refer to Shepherds or Sailors?

Where does Red Sky at Night… come from?

This is in fact one of the oldest known meteorological myths as it has been in use for over 2000 years. The earliest record I can find is in the bible, in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 16, verse 2.  The modern translation reads;

When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

There is a similar quote in  the Book of Luke but Mathew’s verse fits the modern day saying the closest.

Is the Red Sky at Night…. fish wife’s tale correct?

The theory behind this particular tool/tale is based on the premise that when we experience high atmospheric pressure, dust and small particles are trapped in the atmosphere. This scatters blue light leaving the appearance of a red sky.

If we assume for the moment that the prevailing weather comes from the West (as it does, in the UK), let us apply the theory.

We view sunset on the western horizon as the sun goes down, so if we see a red sky at sunset (or red sky at night) it suggest there is high pressure to the west of us and therefore coming our way. High pressure brings fair settled weather (popular with a shepherd tending to his flock at night) but is also associated with light winds or no breeze at all (so not so popular with the sailor).

So it appear the first half of the phrase should in fact exclude sailors and should read;

“Red Sky at Night Shepherd’s delight…”

Turning our attention now to the morning.  Sunrise occurs on the Eastern horizon and if we have red light to the East that’s suggests the high pressure has past and therefore unsettled wet and gusty conditions may follow.

Red Sky in the morning, sailors take warning!
Red Sky in the morning, sailors take warning!

Both the Shepherd and the sailor would want to be warned of this but more so the sailor. So the full saying makes the most sense when read as;

Red sky at night, Shepherd’s delight,

Red sky in the morning, Sailors take warning!

You can of course swop and interchange, “shepherd” or “sailor” if you feel particularly strongly.

Does Red Sky at Night… apply outside the UK?

The simple answer is, Yes, it applies anywhere with prevailing westerly winds which is most of the mid latitudes. That is 30-60 degrees North or South of the equator. So this particular fish wife’s tale is true for much of the worlds’ population including Damascus/Nazareth where the biblical quote above came from.

Global wind circulation weather lore
Global Wind Circulation

However if you were below 30 degrees latitude, (i.e. in the tropics) or above 60 degrees  latitude (in or near the polar regions) then this saying would be unlikely to work much of the time for you.


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