Sea, superstition and saving lives

Faced with the unpredictable and awesome might of the sea, mariners have often resorted to superstition to cope. The lifesavers of the RNLI are no exception.
Poseidon rising from the sea

The sea and superstition have gone together since humanity first took to the waves. There were those in ancient times who prayed to ocean deities for safe passage, and sailors who told stories of ghost ships and sea monsters they spotted on long voyages. 

There’s something about the sheer size of the great unknown that is the sea which leaves plenty of gaps for imaginations to fill.

‘Superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for,’ says Dr Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

The RNLI is no exception when it comes to superstitions, from haunted lifeboat stations, good luck charms or even a routine that must be followed to have a successful shout. Volunteers at the RNLI have never been afraid to look to a higher power for help. 

But lifesaving had to overcome its own superstitions from the start.

Poseidon is one of the better known sea deities
Poseidon is one of the better known sea deities 

Robbing the sea of what is owed

The great and destructive power of the sea has long held a certain sense of mystery. Seafarers across the ages have had to balance the risks of heading out onto the water with the rewards and riches that lay ahead. To avoid a trip to Davy Jones’ Locker, they would make offerings and sacrifices. 

There was even a line of thought that rescuing someone in the water was something that shouldn’t be done. In a lifeboat magazine article from 1927, Hugh Stephenson of the Boulmer Fundraising Branch reported on how times have changed. ‘Vanished … is the old superstition that it was sacrilege to attempt to save a drowning sailor, because that was to rob the sea of its appointed toll of victims.’

It was also considered extremely bad luck to have a woman onboard your boat, with the sea becoming angered by the very prospect of a female sailor. Perhaps this started as a way to keep sailors focused on the tasks at hand. It might explain why manatees were mistaken for mermaids by unfortunate, desperate souls who had spent far too much time out at sea. 

Majestic sea creature or beautiful mermaid?
Majestic sea creature or beautiful mermaid?

Thankfully, these superstitions have faded into memory, with communities around the coast coming together to save lives, and female crew members becoming an important part of the RNLI’s lifesaving.

‘3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17 …’

Many nautical superstitions are a way of coping with the sheer unpredictability of the sea. Throw in a lifeboat shout, where you never quite know what to expect, and it’s no surprise that some crew members have their own rituals and routines to help prepare themselves.

Portishead Crew Member Phil Selwood has two superstitions. One that’s recognisable, one that’s a lot more personal. 

‘When I get called for a shout, I always try and avoid stepping on any cracks on the ground,’ says Phil, harkening back to the rhyme “step on a crack, break your mother’s back”.

Portishead Crew Member Phil Selwood

Photo: Phil Selwood

Portishead Crew Member Phil Selwood

Aside from schoolyard chants, Phil has found a more personal way to calm his pre-shout nerves. ‘When I arrive at the station and start kitting up, I try to count to 100 using only prime numbers. That helps keep the adrenaline under control. 

‘It started when I was about 18, during my A-levels. Whenever I was in a situation that needed calm and clear thought, I’d remember prime numbers. Trying to do that quickly up to 100 while doing something else helped me calm my body and channel that adrenaline.’

 Acorns

Some superstitions are born from tragedy. On 7 December 1899, the crew of Aldeburgh Lifeboat Station launched into a raging gale to aid a ship that had run aground. Despite their best efforts to battle the ferocious winds and relentless waves, the lifeboat capsized, and the crew were hurled overboard. Seven crew members lost their lives.

One of the survivors of the tragedy was Augustus Mann. Remembering the capsize, Augustus said: ‘As I went down, there was one rope round my neck and another round my waist and, when I got clear of them, I got foul of the outrigger. I had a desperate struggle to get ashore.’

Augustus believed that he survived thanks to three acorns he carried in his pocket for luck. These acorns took on a special significance for the lifeboat crew. Preserved with varnish, the acorns are kept in a glass-fronted box and mounted inside the wheelhouse of the lifeboat, including their current Mersey class lifeboat Freddie Cooper.

The legacy of the Aldeburgh acorns: How one lifeboatman's superstition lives on

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

100 years after the tragedy, all 50 volunteers of the lifeboat were presented with a silver acorn charm to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. 

Read more about the story behind the Aldeburgh acorns

Haunted lifeboat stations

There are many RNLI lifeboat stations and old boathouses that have been around for over 100 years. Many are remote, so they make prime locations for ghost stories and hauntings. Ghostly figures, spectral lifeboats and lights with a life of their own are just some of the spooky tales told by lifeboat crews.

Saving lives

Once upon a time, sailors thought they had to please the gods or complete a certain ritual for peace of mind. Today’s lifeboat crews have something else to thank. The support of people like you. 

The sea hasn’t changed. It’s still as unpredictable and dangerous as ever. But the training, equipment and lifeboats you provide for lifesavers around the UK and Ireland helps give them the courage they need. They know that they can head out to sea on a shout, and come back safe and sound with a life saved. 

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

Donate today

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