Boat people are a superstitious lot. I was reminded of this as we were making the final deal on the boat. This boat had been run for the past bunch of years as a commercial fishing boat, tending to pound nets right here in Peconic Bay. As the final details were made ready for a sale, her previous captain set about collecting one last fish tote full of personal effects and saying goodbye. It was a private and slightly somber moment as one commercial life on the water turned shoreside.
Sea Superstition: It's good luck to spit in the ocean before you sail. Not so much before you swim.
Turning to cross the gunwale one last time, the previous owner stopped, contemplated something and then burst up to the cabin top. After some wrangling he reappeared with a twisted, crusty old Barbie that I had noticed lashed to the running lights.
Sea Superstition: Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck on a long voyage. Note: Be prepared to scrub the deck.
As I say, this wasn’t the first time I had seen the doll. In several visits to the boat we had noticed the curious funky doll on the roof. Given the state of the rest of the boat it did not seem very significant. That is until, of course, a sailor took the time to go back for her.
“OK. Now,” I said “now, I am afraid you have to tell me her story”
“As few years ago” he began, “a few years ago we were hauling in the catch…”
Apparently Barbie was trapped in the nets and landed on the dock with the rest of the fish. Just for fun she was soon fastened to the bow with some duct tape and there she took up her now position as a bow maid. After “a few years” (because all boat stories happen in increments of a few years.) the day came when the boat’s mate could bear her no more. Despite pleas for mercy from the captain, she was torn from the bow and flipped unceremoniously back into the bay.
"A Few Years Later..."
Here is where our story makes a sharp turn to port. “A few years later…” the boat is tied in her slip at the marina. After a long day the crew is taking a quiet moment in the cockpit when there came a thunk, thunk, thunk on the hull.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Peering over the side, the captain was shocked to find Barbie, floating, looking a bit worse for wear. She was riding the with the tide and now gently rapping on the hull for attention. She was quickly scooped up and given a place of honor, lashed to the mast. And there she has stayed until the day this story began.
Upon completing his tale, the previous owner hesitated and then gingerly replaced Barbie upon the cabin top. When he came back down, he said simply
“I won’t tell you that you have to keep her. Just, I won’t be the one taking her off.”
And with that, the deal was done.
Sea Superstition: Bananas are thought to be bad luck on board. They are excellent on ice cream however.
In the short time since, we have talked a lot about Barbie. She is, well, creepy. I wonder aloud whether she has the same powers if lashed a few feet higher (and out of sight) at the masthead. She’s been given some unflattering names, ridiculed, but she hasn’t yet been removed. Nobody has the stones.
While contemplating Barbie’s power one night, it occurred to me that she bore some resemblance, both spiritual and visual to another nautical idol I possess. Some years ago, a good friend and intrepid traveler, Cezar Dubois returned from a trip to the South Pacific. He had travelled to the island of Yap. Like many of the Pacific Island peoples, the people of Yap have a long history of navigating open waters without the advantage of great technology. The Navigator of the boat keeps a hand carved idol, with eyes of abalone, and arms of fresh coconut fronds, This idol’s presence aboard was meant to ward off bad fortune.
Monsieur Dubois returned from Yap and presented me with a fine Navigator Idol and it has held a shoreside vigil ever since.
Scaring the daylights out of anyone who dare face it.
Navigators from the outer islands of Yap used this idol as they sailed off on a voyage. The idol freshly adorned with young coconut fronds is held up to the four winds as chants sung by the navigator ask for safe passage, good weather, good fishing, and protection from any black magic that may have been inflicted upon the voyagers by enemies The idol carved from wood has a double face image front and back on a single body. Arm like projections open between the body and arm allows young coconut fronds to be wrapped around and tied. Originally coral sand was adhered to the underside of the base above four leg-like projections made from stingray spines, which were lethal if used to inflict a wound. No one other than the navigator was allowed to touch or work with the power of the idol on land or water under the curse of death. The idol while sailing is placed on the rope from the main mast handy for the navigator to reach and when not in use place under the outrigger below the navigator. Upon the return to the island the idol is stored, hung high in the men’s canoe house, where it is safe from any harm.