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Sea Superstitions Are Hard to Fathom

March 04, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

If you are a cross-eyed redhead who walks with a limp, better stand your ground. They don't want you out on the waves.

Take it from Horace Beck, who has spent much of his life studying the lore, tales and superstitions of the sea. In fact, he has just concluded four lectures on the subject in a series sponsored by UCLA Extension.

"I once found out firsthand how much weight some superstitions have at sea," he recalled last week before departing for his home in Vermont. "In the late '60s my wife, Jane, and I sailed to Scotland. Despite the fact it was a foggy night when I arrived, I was able to get our sloop into the harbor safely--and the local fishermen were impressed.

"I got an invitation to go to sea with them, and immediately snapped it up."

Change of Luck

Within a couple of weeks the galley of the trawler caught fire, the $50,000 fishing net broke loose on the bottom of the North Sea and had to be retrieved with a grappling iron and then the winch stopped working.

The cruise had at least another week to go, but the captain headed back to port and invited the guest passenger to disembark. The captain said he knew when he had a Jonah aboard.

"I knew there were certain words I shouldn't have used while at sea," Beck reflected.

He didn't say the captain's mother wore combat boots, but he did refer to a rabbit.

"In that fishing area of the world, you didn't say 'rabbit, pig, salmon or minister,' " Beck disclosed. "You substituted words such as four foot , curlytail , red fish or white collar.

"Having studied superstitions, I was aware of this, but once when they asked me what I did in Vermont, I blurted out that I shot rabbits.

"The captain jumped up and shouted: 'Man, do you want to drown us all?' "

Looking back now at his adventures at sea and his studies of it, the 64-year-old Beck, who has been on the faculty of Middlebury College the last 30 years, mentioned a few other no-nos.

"A clergyman is never welcome on the waters. That is pretty general throughout the world. And, in certain areas, they don't want you aboard if you are cross-eyed or lame. Or if you are a redhead--especially if everybody else has brown hair."

While in Scotland, the professor heard of an incident involving a clergyman. "A minister with good intentions had come dockside in Fraserburgh to bless the fleet. All the vessels except one had escaped. Upon seeing the minister, its skipper was so horrified that he sailed the harbor counterclockwise seven times, as fast as he could go, blowing his horn all the way, before he felt it was safe to head out for sea."

Time doesn't exactly fly when one is part of a crew seeking to catch whales in what used to be called the West Indies, and while thusly occupied for 105 days Beck soaked up other superstitions.

"We swapped stories every day. I learned, for instance, about a burial at sea in that part of the world. While proceeding to the site, you alternate one oar stroke through the water, one through the air. The water represents the body, the air represents the spirit."

For a lull in the conversation at your next party, consider a seafaring saying which, according to Beck, means that times are bad enough now, so don't worry about the future. The sailors in what now is the Lesser Antilles say: "A dead hog never studies boiling water."

Safe to say that most fishing vessels don't have rows designated for nonsmokers. Pipe smoking, especially, is thought to discourage the arrival of ghosts.

Tattoos, of course, are well engraved in maritime lore.

"When I was in Scotland I came across a youth who had fallen overboard three times while at sea," the professor said. "No one wanted him on their ship anymore. They insisted that the reason for his accidents was that he refused to get tattooed."

Marked for Good Luck

Popular among fishermen, Beck went on, is a tattoo of a pig on one instep, a rooster on another. "One reason is that those creatures rarely drown. Also, having such tattoos supposedly guarantees a future of bacon and eggs."

Another good-luck tattoo--actually eight of them, on the backs of the fingers--is "Hold Fast," to preclude falling overboard.

Tattoos also are akin to automobile bumper stickers that proclaim the faraway destinations the motorist has visited. "Veteran sailors often can look at tattoos and identify particular artists by the style, thereby knowing which ports the owner has visited."

Not only did Beck go whaling as a guest in the former West Indies, he did likewise for comparison purposes in the Kingdom of Tonga.

"One thing I found out was that whereas the West Indian sailors are excitable, the Polynesians are just the opposite. One time a whale unexpectedly breached, and just about came into the boat. The guy on one side of me kept blowing smoke rings, and the one on the other side calmly continued eating his raw fish."

Although away from their families for much of the time, the Polynesian sailors aren't self-centered. It takes two to Tonga.

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