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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 1

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 1: What to Document

What to document:


Beliefs are easily among the most distinctive and enduring portions of maritime culture. Traditional beliefs (popularly called superstitions) are convictions that are usually related to causes and effects, and are often manifest in certain practices. Common examples include beliefs about good and bad luck, signs for predicting of weather, interpretations of supernatural happenings, and remedies for sickness and injury.

Since maritime occupations often place workers in a highly unpredictable, constantly changing, and hazardous environment, it is not surprising that workers hold many beliefs about fortune and misfortune.1 A primary function of such beliefs is to explain the unexplainable. Watermen generally can cite many actions that invite bad luck. These actions include uttering certain words while aboard a boat, taking certain objects or people on a boat, going out in a boat on a certain day, manipulating parts of a boat in a certain way, or painting boats with certain colors. A Florida shrimp fisherman notes beliefs about bad luck that he and his peers have learned:

There are a lot of words, you know, that you don't say on a boat. [Like] "alligator." You don't say "alligator" on a boat or you're going to have a pile of bad luck. You don't have no shells on there, no shells on a boat. You don't turn the hatch cover all the way upside down. You don't carry no black suitcase on no boat. You don't whistle.2

Many beliefs about bad luck have been part of local maritime culture for so long that their origins are unknown. Occasionally, however, stories are told that either describe the origin of a belief or depict an instance where circumstances appear to validate one. The following is an example of the latter:

The shell story, now. In fact, this boy used to work with me on the Miss Virgie. He was out there dragging [for shrimp] one night, and he was on the stern, and he hung up [his net]. So, he run up there, and cut the engine down, and it took him a while to get off the hang. And he started dragging again. The engine shut off. So, he got that going again, started dragging some more, picked up [his net], and went on the stern, and [was] helping his crew pick out [shrimp], and he noticed the boat started to go around one way, and he started running for the pilot house. And the [automatic] pilot had hung up. It carried the boat around one side, and when the quadrant was supposed to stop the rudder in the back, well, it did stop the rudder, but the pilot didn't stop. So, it tore up part of the dash, and ripped all the pilot out of the floor. And this is all in one night. So, he kind of, he believes in all of that kind of stuff pretty much, so he said, "There's something on this boat that isn't supposed to be on it." So, he got to looking and he hunted all over the boat. And he got on top of the pilot house, and there was a line of shells on the pilot house that his deck hand had put up there to dry off good. And he said, "Them shells was the reason we had all the trouble." He throwed them shells overboard, and he went for months, never had any more trouble.3

Beliefs about actions that invite good luck appear to be fewer in number than those about bad luck, but many can be found. Beliefs about good luck include the breaking of a bottle of champagne or other liquid over the bow of a vessel when it is launched, participating in a blessing-of-the-fleet ceremony, placing a coin under a mast, carrying a lucky object aboard a boat, and stepping on or off a boat with the same foot.

Beliefs about the prediction of weather and the movement of fish are usually quite numerous. These beliefs, often linked to the detection of minute environmental changes, reflect watermen's intimate contact with the natural environment. A retired Florida shrimp fisherman recalled:

When you were shrimping and you started catching shrimp with their legs just blood-red, you knew to watch very close because you were fixing to have either a strong northeaster or a strong southeaster. Their legs will turn just as red as fire, so, yes, their legs will turn just as red as fire, and you know you're in for a spell of bad weather.4

Another shrimper who fishes out of the same community explained how wind direction can provide clues about the location of shrimp:

There's certain places that shrimp get in in different types of weather. Say, for instance, you go out to the jetties one morning, and it's blowing a pretty stiff southwest wind. Well, that tells you, in most cases, that you want to go southwest on the beach, get close up to the beach, and you probably would do better. If you come out of the jetties, and it's blowing a pretty good, stiff northeast wind, you can go northeast or southeast, but you want to go offshore in the deep water, and most of the time you'll do better that way. When the wind is blowing out of the northwest, turn your boat back around, and go back to the dock, and make you another cup of coffee because you ain't going to catch a thing. It just dries it up completely. A northwest wind is a bad wind on shrimping. I don't know why, but you just don't catch no shrimp.5

Sometimes beliefs are expressed concisely in the form of a rhyme. When discussing the relationship between wind direction and fishing success, an oysterman from Apalachicola, Florida, remarked to a researcher:

East is the least,
and the west is the best.6

In other words, in Apalachicola Bay winds out of the east generally produce conditions that are least conducive to good catches, while winds out of the west tend to favor good catches. Other "signs" often associated with weather prediction include rings around the moon, concentrations of refracted sunlight in the sky called "sundogs," the color of the sky at sunrise and sunset, and the color and texture of the sea.

Beliefs related to the supernatural are also found in maritime communities: ghosts, phantom ships, burning ships, or sea monsters. But, because many people are reluctant to discuss them, they are considerably less conspicuous than beliefs about luck and weather. A net maker tells of his experience with a supernatural event:

I saw an occurrence, and I never said very much about it . . . . It was in the bay, and it never really got close enough for me to really see it, but it was right down off town, off straight out from the city marina. And I watched it come in from the Gulf. And it come in and went across a bar where it's shallow. Ain't no way a ship that big could cross it. And it appeared to be a big schooner-type, a big sailing ship of some type. And to me, there was no explaining it away. It was a ship come in there and went across that bar. But I don't know what it was. And I was curious about it, but I never said much about it because people will say, "Oh, you're crazy." So, you just don't talk about it. But this vessel come in from the old pass, just like it would have done a hundred years ago. And it come in and it crossed Courtney Point, and Courtney Point is too shallow. And when it crossed it went behind the day marker, and still went right on up the bay towards St. Andrews. And then it just wasn't there.7


1. For example, commercial fishing is considered the most hazardous of all industrial occupations in the United States. Statistics show that fishermen are seven times more likely to die on the job than workers in the next most dangerous occupation.

2. Interview with shrimp fisherman Charles Herrin of Jacksonville, Florida, recorded July 31, 1986, by David Taylor. Tape recorded interview on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, White Springs, Florida.

3. Interview with shrimp fisherman Charles Herrin of Jacksonville, Florida, recorded July 31, 1986, by David Taylor.

4. Interview with retired fisherman Albert Gufford of Mayport, Florida, recorded August 8, 1986, by David Taylor. Tape recorded interview on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, White Springs, Florida.

5. Interview with shrimp fisherman Charles Herrin of Jacksonville, Florida, recorded July 31, 1986, by David Taylor.

6. From oyster fisherman Cletis Anderson of Apalachicola, Florida. Recorded in fieldnotes by Nancy Nusz and David Taylor on November 6, 1986. Notes on deposit at the Florida Folklife Archives, White Springs, Florida.

7. Net maker Jimmy Carden of Panama City, Florida, in the video documentary Fishing All My Days (White Springs: Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs, 1985).


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   May 15, 2015
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