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A storm approaches Holland America's Rotterdam off Half Moon Cay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
A storm approaches Holland America's Rotterdam off Half Moon Cay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

6 Nautical Cruise Superstitions You Never Knew About

A storm approaches Holland America's Rotterdam off Half Moon Cay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
A storm approaches Holland America's Rotterdam off Half Moon Cay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Senior Editor, News and Features
Aaron Saunders

Last updated
May 1, 2024

Read time
6 min read

Seafaring is as old as the ages – and as with anything that has a history dating back centuries, more than a few curious superstitions and beliefs about the sea, and sailing upon it, have come to light during that time.

From mentions of the Titanic to superstitions around setting out on certain days of the week, these are the nautical cruise superstitions you never knew about.

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1. Mentioning the Titanic

The RMS Titanic sets out from Southampton on April 10, 1912 (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
The RMS Titanic sets out from Southampton on April 10, 1912 (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

I remember saying something about the Titanic on one voyage while I worked as an Expedition Team member aboard Seabourn Sojourn in Alaska back in 2018. One member of the crew looked sternly at me and said, “We don’t talk about the Titanic here.”

Turns out, that crewmember isn’t alone: talking about the Titanic, wearing anything Titanic-related (I may or may not have Titanic-themed socks) and even showing the 1997 James Cameron movie Titanic is all viewed with a steady gaze of suspicion and distaste as far as most shipboard crews are concerned.

It makes sense. While the White Star Line ship may still be the most instantly-recognizable ocean liner over a century after its demise, talking about a mass-casualty shipwreck is about as popular as discussing airline disasters with the cabin crew on your next flight.

The one exception: transatlantic crossings aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 regularly mention the final resting place of the RMS Titanic, as most passengers are often curious about where the ship is in relation to the famous White Star Liner’s final location.

2. “Red Sky in Morning, Sailors Take Warning”

The color of the sky can tell you a lot about the upcoming weather (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
The color of the sky can tell you a lot about the upcoming weather (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Traditionally speaking, vibrant, red sunrises are seen as a bad omen, the harbinger of bad weather to come.

This sailor’s superstition is actually rooted in some reality. At sunrise, when the sun is low in the sky, it transmits light through the atmosphere and creates a resulting red color, typically caused by an atmosphere that is rich with dust and moisture. Red is visible because red wavelengths – which are the longest in the color spectrum – are breaking through the atmosphere of blue wavelengths, which are shortest.

Some anecdotal evidence backs this up.

In October 2015, the cargo ship El Faro sank after running straight into Hurricane Joaquin in the Bahamas. The captain had been relying on out-of-date weather information and had ignored the increasing pleas of his crew to alter course, believing his vessel to be well away from the storm.

Once recovered from the ocean floor following the capsize and sinking, the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder provided an intimate look at the conversations on the navigation bridge during the fateful journey. El Faro’s Captain Davidson noted the intensity of the sky on their final morning at sea. “Oh, look at that red sky over there,” Davidson says on the bridge. “‘Red in the morning, sailors take warning,’ That is bright.”

El Faro sank the following morning after running into Hurricane Joaquin, resulting in the loss of all hands aboard.

But if you see a red sunset, fear not: these generally suggest calm weather ahead and an absence of precipitation.

3. Ghosts, Voids and Below Deck Spaces

One of severa engine rooms aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
One of severa engine rooms aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Ships – like any large man-made object – are the subject of fear and superstition amongst crewmembers and even passengers, for different reasons.

One popular cruise ship built in the 1990’s (we’re not naming it here) had the prefix “Satan” added to its name by some crewmembers after persistent urban legends that workers were accidentally welded into the ship’s voids – often fuel or ballast tanks – during construction.

The idea of being trapped in a ship’s below-deck spaces goes hand-in-hand with ghost stories. Ships, like any hotel or resort, experience their share of tragedy, and it is often said that ghosts of the ship continue to roam its corridors long after they have passed away.

Queen Mary hotel in Long Beach (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Queen Mary hotel in Long Beach (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

The most popular example of this is the original RMS Queen Mary. Now permanently moored in Long Beach, which is reportedly haunted by over 100 spirits, including those that roam nearly every public room and the ship’s most infamous stateroom, B340, which rents for a premium price to willing guests and reportedly scares staff so much that some refuse to go inside.

Even our own Cruise Critic members have discussed ghost sightings onboard cruise ships, with member zeroed posting a most chilling tale of shipboard paranormal activity: “A ghost took my card and spent entirely too much in the casino while my wife and I were asleep.

“He then returned to the room and left the room and my clothes smelling like smoke and liquor. I was a victim, but my wife doesn’t believe me. Stupid ghost. “

4. Missing Deck and Cabin Numbers

Cruise ship deck plan (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Cruise ship deck plan (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

In many cultures, the number 13 is seen as a superstitious one – a bad omen, or a sign of bad luck. And, as a result, many – but not all – cruise ships lack a Deck 13, preferring to skip from Deck 12 right to Deck 14.

But did you know that MSC Cruises' ships have a Deck 13 – but not a Deck 17?

In Italy, the number 17 is viewed as being unlucky; something that traces its roots back to Ancient Rome. Conversely, MSC Cruises ships – which are built heavily around Italian traditions and customs – do not have a Deck 17, preferring to go straight from Deck 16 to Deck 18.

Norwegian Spirit alongside at Sitka, Alaska (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Norwegian Spirit alongside at Sitka, Alaska (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

But did you know that in Chinese culture the number four is considered unlucky? Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Spirit – built in 1998 for then-owner Star Cruises for the Chinese market – reflects this superstition. Although the ship has a Deck 4, it does not have any cabins ending in the number four. Don’t believe us? Check the deck plans for yourself!

5. Keep the Whistling to a Minimum

Sea Cloud Spirit crew in the rigging (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Sea Cloud Spirit crew in the rigging (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Whistling has long been thought to bring bad luck aboard a ship. While whistling on a cruise ship these days probably won’t get you in any trouble, it’s not hard to see the origins of this superstition: wind makes a whistling noise as it whistles through the rigging of a sailing ship, and obviously indicates bad weather is to come.

Whistling, therefore, was seen as conjuring up wind, or bad weather – and sailors avoided any potential risk of bad luck by not whistling while at sea.

6. Freaky Friday

Setting sail on a Friday was once considered bad luck (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Setting sail on a Friday was once considered bad luck (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

We’ve probably all broken this final nautical taboo at least once in our cruising lives. Historically, setting sail on a Friday was verboten by early sailors as it was believed to be the day Jesus Christ was crucified.

But it’s not just Fridays, either: other religiously-influenced dates to avoid setting out on an ocean voyage include the first Monday in April, the second Monday in August, and December 31.

Fortunately, times have changed: don’t be surprised if your cruise ship sets out on a Friday, or even New Year’s Eve.

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