"OCEAN PLANET" Legends and Customs of the Sea
Scottish law once required fishermen to wear a gold earring, which
was used to pay for funeral expenses if they were drowned and washed
An old custom dictates that any sailor who sails around Cape Horn is
entitled to a small blue tattoo in the shape of a five-pointed star
on his left ear. Five times around earns a star on the right ear as
well, and two red marks on the forehead is the sign of a great
voyager who has rounded the Cape ten times or more. According to one
sailor, who himself sports a star on his left ear, there are only two
red-star men in the world. Both live in Liverpool, where no pub would
charge a red-star man for a drink.
Wine poured upon the deck before a long voyage represents a libation
to the gods which will bring good luck. "Christening" a ship by
breaking a bottle of champagne across her bow at the time of
launching arose from this practice.
It was in the early days of the British Navy that guns were first
fired in salute. Since they could not be reloaded quickly, the act of
firing a gun in salute assured those receiving the salute that those
who fired had disarmed themselves, and could do no harm. The more
guns that were fired, the greater the assurance of disarmament, and
the higher the respect offered to those being saluted. The largest
ships of the fleet held twenty-one guns along one side, therefore the
highest mark of respect was a twenty-one-gun salute.
During World War II. the United States Navy instituted a system for
naming various classes of ships, including the following:
- Ammunition ships: for volcanos or names suggesting fire and explosives;
- Battleships: after states of the union;
- Destroyers: in honor of dead
persons associated with the Navy or Marines;
- Hospital ships: with "synonyms for kindness" or "other logical and euphonious words;"
- Ocean tugs: for Indian tribes;
- Provision storeships: for astronomical
- Submarines: after fish and other sea life.
"What the sea wants, the sea will have," according to the traditional
wisdom of the British Isles and many maritime cultures. Thus
fatalistic sailors of the past--and some of the present--never
learned to swim.
Legend has it that an umbrella aboard ship is unlucky.
These Legends and Customs of the Sea come from the Smithsonian Institution's Ocean Planet
exhibition and from the book Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea, by Peter Benchley and Judith
Gradwohl (published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., 100 5th Ave., New
York, N.Y. 10011)
Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan
gene carl feldman (email@example.com) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)