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Going Bananas

For Superstitious Seamen, Bringing the Fruit on Board Only Means Rotten Luck and Unusual Voyages

August 17, 2001|PETE THOMAS

They're sweet, nutritious, and might even help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes.

But bananas are not the perfect food they're made out to be.

Ask any fisherman. More than likely, you'll be told that the sleek and slender fruit has one major imperfection: It does not sit well with the fish gods.

"You bring bananas and you're going to get a lot of bites, but you're going to lose a lot of fish," says Kenny Llanes, 60, captain of On the Fly on the big island of Hawaii. "You're going to get broken lines and your reel is going to freeze up. A lot of unusual things are going to happen if you bring bananas on the boat."

Llanes is not alone in thinking that way. In fact, with the summer fishing seasons well underway, a quick survey of skippers found that others with an aversion to bananas come in bunches.

Take Bouncer Smith of South Florida, for example. Bananas have been smuggled aboard his 33-foot sportfisher and on one such occasion his steering gave out. He found and chased the banana smuggler around the deck, chastising the poor fellow for ruining what could have been a good day of fishing.

You have to watch out for Smith, who appears to have gone overboard with his banana fetish: He gives wedgies to unsuspecting clients he suspects of wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear.

"Typically, when customers arrive in the morning, the first thing I do is interrogate them," Smith said. "First, I check for bananas, then I check for Banana Boat sunscreen products, then for Banana Republic shirts and blouses, then for Starburst strawberry-banana [candies] and, most important of all, for Fruit of the Loom labels."

When told that label doesn't picture any bananas, Smith pointed out that it used to, before he had the company's vice president of sales aboard and, after a horrendous trip, talked him around to his way of thinking.

The banana has been missing from the label for two years, Smith says, but he still doesn't trust it.

"I'd say it's a 50-50 split among fishermen," he said. "There are believers and there are nonbelievers, and if you're a believer the results can be devastating."

It's unclear when and where bananas became the forbidden fruit of fishermen and other seafarers. Some trace the phenomenon to the early Polynesians, who refused to carry bananas on long voyages because they ripened so quickly, emitting gasses that hastened the spoilage of other produce.

Another story centers on an unspecified time somewhere in the South Pacific, when consumption of bananas was restricted to royalty. According to legend, a group of lowly fishermen stole some bananas and paddled to sea, where the evidence, or peels, could be easily disposed of.

A typhoon struck, killing the fishermen and destroying the homes of their families, leaving the rest of the islanders unscathed.

Whatever its origin, the banana superstition has taken deep root and appears here to stay.

In Southern California, it's more of a joke than anything else. Or is it?

"I never personally take bananas on a fishing trip," says Pete Gray, avid angler and co-host of the radio show, "Let's Talk Hook-Up!"

"I'm not sure if the superstition is true, but what if it is? I need all the help I can get and I don't want to upset the fish gods."

John Doughty, of J.D.'s Big Game Tackle on Balboa Island, says that marlin fishermen, most of them wealthy and seemingly intelligent, are among the strongest believers. And that if the coming tournament season is anything like past seasons, competing anglers will "sneak around during the wee evening hours from boat to boat, hanging bunches of bananas beneath the bow pulpits."

Those on the receiving end will then spend the next day at the fishing grounds, unaware of the fruit dangling in front of them, wondering why they're not catching anything.

Doughty's scrumptious-looking banana lure--"They retail for $29.95 and come with a 10-fish guarantee"--is a hot seller as a gag gift but has actually caught marlin, he says.

In Hawaii, where the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament ends today, the banana is powerful taboo in the minds of many.

Capt. Kent Mongrieg of the Jacque-Apito does not allow them. He became a believer years ago while working in Alaska where, he says, the superstition is even stronger. Mongrieg's charter had enjoyed a fine day, limiting out on huge halibut. On the way back to port, to show there was nothing to the so-called jinx, one of the passengers brought out a banana and flaunted it.

"Five minutes later, we blew an engine," Mongrieg says. "We threw a rod and limped home on one engine, and the guy just kind of humbled himself into a corner. He got the cold stare from everybody all the way in."

Llanes, born and raised in Hawaii, said he had a father-son combination out last week and they went seven hours without a strike. Llanes then discovered that each had brought a banana so he barked, "Either eat the bananas or throw them away."

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