Why are fishermen superstitious of bananas?

Would the Miss Jessie permit bananas and suitcases on its deck?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Stevie Wonder once sang that superstition is "when you believe in things that you don't understand." And, maybe he's right. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. Break a mirror, get seven years of bad luck. We've all heard the rhymes, but how many of us really know what they mean, or, more importantly, where they came from?

In the year 2000, one in four Americans admitted to being "very" or "somewhat" superstitious [source: Gallup]. Superstitions rise to our minds when we want more control or certainty about something. We want an explanation for why things go wrong -- or right -- and, for whatever reason, we're quick to attribute success or failure to something seemingly innocuous, like a rabbit's foot or a penny. Psychologists believe that when we carry items like these, they ac­tually have a placebo effect, fueling positive thinking. Conversely, if we lose that lucky object, we think negative thoughts [source: Albert].


­You probably won't find a more superstitious group of people than sailors and fishermen. Their present superstitious beliefs date back several centuries and include these prominent examples: It's bad luck to sail on a Friday. If you whistle or sing into the wind on a boat, a storm is sure to follow. Sailors who wear earrings or have tattoos won't drown. It's bad luck to have women onboard because they make the sea angry or jealous. Rats leaving a ship are a sign of trouble. (Actually, that's no superstition. You probably should pay those fleeing rats some heed, as you'll learn in How to Survive a Sinking Ship.)

Crab boat fishermen are a particularly superstitious lot. Perhaps it's because their jobs are so inherently dangerous -- commercial crab fishing is one of the deadliest industries in the world. Or maybe it's because the industry has been around for so long, and fishermen have spread superstition neurosis to the next generation for many, many years.

One thing we do know for sure: Try to bring a banana or a suitcase on a crab fishing boat, and you might find yourself waving goodbye at the dock. We'll tell you why on the next page.


Bananas and Suitcases -- Fishing Folklore

Banana superstitions may have originated with the banana boats of the Caribbean trade.
Fernand Allard L'Olivier/Getty Images

Two of the most enduring crab boat superstitions have to do with, of all things, bananas and suitcases. In both cases, these items are strictly forbidden onboard.

Many charter fishing boat crews have steadfast restrictions about bringing bananas on the boat. In fact, they'll return to the dock to purge the offending fruit [source: ESPN]. Some charters go so far as to prohibit Banana Boat brand sunscreen or Banana Republic brand clothes onboard. Fishermen have even been known to object to Fruit of the Loom underwear (one sport fisher claimed he's treated wearers to wedgies and then cut the labels out) [source: LA Times]. Oddly enough, the Fruit of the Loom graphic doesn't even have a banana on it, and some say the banana was left off because of this very superstition [source: Brincefield].


There are many theories on why people believe bananas are bad luck for a boat. One superstition is that boats carrying bananas don't catch fish. The origin of this belief dates back to the Caribbean trade of the 1700s. The wooden sailing boats of that time had to move quickly to deliver bananas before they spoiled, and fishermen had a hard time trolling for fish on such fast-moving boats, which is how the superstition came about. Another superstition that originated during that time is that bananas will cause a boat to sink. This belief developed after many boats never made it to their destinations, and all of the doomed boats were carrying bananas.

One of the creepier superstitions is that banana cargo could actually kill a man. In actuality, fermenting bananas do give off methane gas, which could conceivably get trapped below deck and kill any crew members unlucky enough to be working in the hold. Another popular theory was that venomous spiders hitched rides in bananas, and once those bananas were onboard, the boat would be host to any number of lethal critters. And then, of course, there's the theory that banana peels cause crew members to slip and fall on deck [source: Attah].

Suitcases onboard is a fishing boat no-no as well. Even when camera crew boarded crab boats to film Discovery Channel's reality series "Deadliest Catch," they were asked to leave their equipment suitcases on the dock [source: Deadliest Catch].

The origins of the suitcase superstition are murky, and the superstition has variations. For example, some sailors are superstitious of all luggage; some only ban black suitcases and bags. But everyone seems to agree that a suitcase is a harbinger of death or illness. Black bags are considered bad because black is the color of death and a metaphor for the depths of the dark, cold sea. Some fisherman say that travel bags resemble body bags, another obvious symbol of death.

Why do crab boat captains and crew hang on to these superstitions? Probably for the same reason the superstitions began. Even with modern understanding of science and weather patterns, we still perceive the sea as a mysterious and treacherous place. Beliefs and superstitions are passed down from generation to generation, from fisherman to fisherman, and it's a brave sailor who turns his (or her) back on tradition. Would you be willing to see what happens when you reject a centuries-old superstition?

Yes, we have no bananas -- but we do have some interesting links below.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Albert, Sarah. "The Psychology of Superstition." MedicineNet.com. April 26, 2005. (July 29, 2008) http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=46749
  • Attah, Ayesha H. "No Bananas on Board." Yachting. February 2007. (July 29, 2008) http://www.yachtingmagazine.com/article.jsp?ID=21015338
  • Brincefield, Jim. "The Story of Bananas and Bad Luck." Chesapeake Bay & Atlantic Ocean Charter Fishing. 2008. (July 15, 2008) http://www.azinet.com/captjim/bananas.htm
  • Deadliest Catch. "Sig on Superstitions." AOL Video. 2008. (July 15, 2008) http://video.aol.com/partner/discoverychannel/deadliest-catch-sig-on-superstitions/34b8a3780acd2f948a6f99e7c597952f86f953fe
  • Deadliest Catch Wiki. "Galway Girl's Sea Superstitions." June 18, 2008. (July 15, 2008) http://www.deadliest-catch-wiki.discovery.com/page/Galway+Girl%27s+Sea+Superstitions
  • Failed Success. "Superstition at Sea." 2008. (July 15, 2008) http://www.failedsuccess.com/index.php?/weblog/comments/superstition_sea_fishermen/
  • Moore, David W. "One in Four Americans Superstitious." Gallup News Service. Oct. 13, 2000. (July 29, 2008) http://www.gallup.com/poll/2440/One-Four-Americans-Superstitious.aspx
  • Reporter's Notebook. "Superstitions, lucky food and an unsatisfied Scroggins." ESPN.com. March 2, 2006. (July 29, 2008) http://sports.espn.go.com/outdoors/bassmaster/news/story?page=b_news_reporters_notebook_030206