gp 2011

“Nobody said superstitions made so much sense that they couldn’t contradict each other. The reasons why women should not be allowed on board can be found later. However many sailors simultaneously believed that women made the best navigators. This was part of the reason why from the mid-1700s onwards figure heads of of large ships usually took the form of a nubile young lady in an otherwise bashful state of undress. Sailors also believed a woman baring her chest could shame a sea into calming down, which might go some distance to explain why female figureheads became increasing well endowed. The ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted the power of female nudity 2000 years ago, but maybe he’d just been at sea long time.”

“Before female figureheads became common, the subject varied. It didn’t even have to be human. The Vikings fashioned dragon heads out of the heads of the prows of their longships, the idea being that a dragon would scare off any evil encounter at sea; to complete the disguise the stern was often tapered to a tail. Elsewhere commanding animals like lions were used. Warships of the Royal navy often had a soldier in full battledress, a shield on his arm and a hand on his sword, ready to fight. As with other figureheads, this was meant to embody the spirit of the ship. That was certainly true of some commercial ships too; sometimes the vainglorious owner had an image of himself sculpted onto the front of his vessel before it set sail to make him richer.”

“Regardless of what form the figurehead took, its eyes always had to be open and looking straight ahead. An always-watchful figurehead helped keep the ship’s course true, and prevented the vessel getting lost. In the mediterranean sailors painted an eye on the bow of their boats for the same reason. Modern sailors who can’t fit a big figurehead on the front of their Hobie 33 could also try this. The eye mustn’t be painted green, as this is the colour of land, and suggests a boat is looking for shore because she isn’t happy at sea. No part of the boat should be painted blue either, this is the colour of the sea, and the gods might lose sight of the little vessel in the thousands of miles of open ocean.”

“Alternatively, modern sailors wary of getting lost at sea could invest in a good GPS system.”

-  Eyers, J. (2011). Don’t shoot the albatross!: nautical myths & superstitions. London: Adlard Coles Nautical.