Why is it bad luck to change the name of a ship?

Think deeply about your ship's name, you could be putting your life at risk by changing it after the fact.
Stewart Sutton/Thinkstock

Superstitions abound in all cultures, but you probably won't encounter a more superstitious group of people than sailors. Why is this? Most psychologists believe that superstitions evolve from feeling a lack of control. Writer and psychology professor Stuart Vyse states that, "When something important is at stake yet the outcome is uncertain, then superstitions are likely to be used to fill the gap and make us feel more confident" [source: Lallanilla].

Because so much about taking a boat or ship out on the water relies on things beyond our control -- the weather, the state of the ocean, the mechanics of the vessel -- sailors have a lot to worry about. It makes sense, then, that so many superstitions revolve around sailing, boating and fishing. Just a few examples of these long-held beliefs include:


  • Whistling on a boat is bad luck.
  • Bringing bananas on a boat is bad luck.
  • Never sail on a Thursday or Friday.
  • If you see a redhead before boarding a ship, it's bad luck.
  • Dolphins swimming alongside a ship are good luck.
  • Changing the name of a ship or boat is very bad luck.

Why is it bad luck to change the name of a vessel? Boats change hands all the time, and what was a perfect name for one owner can't possibly be the perfect name for you. Many boaters and sailors, though, insist changing the name brings bad luck. If you must change it, you should perform a ceremony first to ensure good luck.

This superstition goes back a long time, and is even mentioned in the classic novel "Treasure Island," in which Long John Silver says, "What a ship was christened, so let her stay." Tales abound of captains renaming their ships in a moment of hubris, only to be met with a tragic watery end. Legend says that when every ship is christened, its name goes into a "Ledger of the Deep" maintained by Neptune (or Poseidon) himself. Renaming a ship or boat means you're trying to slip something past the gods and you will be punished for your deviousness.

Another, more practical, explanation is that back in the day when most boats were used to transport cargo, each vessel had its own reputation, good or bad, in ports of call all over the world. A sudden name change would render a boat, and therefore its reputation, unrecognizable and likely cause many problems for the captain and crew [source: Hurricane Boats].

Whether or not you're superstitious, if you decide to change the name of your boat, fellow sailors consider it good form to perform a re-naming ritual. A boat re-naming ceremony makes the sea gods aware that you're re-naming your boat, showing them you have no underhanded motives.

There are many different ceremonies for re-naming your boat -- you can look them up online or ask your local boating community which they prefer. Typically, though, you must first remove all traces of the old name. This means removing the name from the hull, burning the old logbook and paperwork, and requesting the gods to forget the old name. Then, you re-christen the boat with alcohol. First offer some to the water, some to the boat, then to everyone else to toast the new vessel. Another, less desirable, option is to have a virgin urinate over the bow [source: Eyers].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BoaterExam.com. "Very Superstitious: 13 Sailor Superstitions." July 15, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.boaterexam.com/blog/2011/07/boater-superstitions.aspx
  • Eyers, Jonathan. "Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions." Adlard Coles Nautical. 2011. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.jonathaneyers.com/nautical_sailing_superstitions.html
  • First Port of Call. "Fancy A Name Change?" 2014. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://firstportofcall.com/knowledge/sailing-superstitions/fancy-a-name-change/
  • Lallanilla, Marc. "Friday the 13th: Why Humans Are So Superstitious." Live Science. Sept. 13, 2013. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/39566-friday-the-13th-superstitions.html