Maritime traditions and culture: fascinating stories and facts about the life of seafarers

Sea Traditions and Culture | AVANT

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There are many maritime traditions that have passed through the centuries and still persist in maritime culture. For centuries, sailors have weathered storms, explored worlds, and shaped unique maritime traditions and culture. 

In this article, we will introduce you to some of these entertaining traditions and interesting stories that you may not have known.

The rule of silence on board

One of the oldest maritime traditions is the “rule of silence.” This does not mean that silence must reign aboard ship, but there are certain topics that are usually avoided because they are considered bad omens.

Superstitions at sea have their origins in ancient times, when sailors tried to resort to every possible means to ensure safety and good fortune in their voyages. Some of these taboos have survived the centuries and are still respected on ships around the world.

For example, it was considered bad form to talk about sea serpents or seven-mile boots on board. Sea serpents were a symbol of danger and misfortune in maritime folklore, and seven-mile boots are associated with fast and uncontrollable movements, which could cause fear in sailors faced with the unpredictability of the high seas.

Other taboos include mentioning certain numbers considered unlucky or bringing on board items that might bring bad luck. There is also a general superstition that women on board bring bad luck, although this stereotype is long outdated and does not reflect modern realities and norms of gender equality.

It is important to realize that these superstitions and traditions are very much part of the cultural heritage of seafaring and belong more to history and folklore than have a serious impact on modern maritime operations. However, they are an interesting reminder of maritime history and traditions that have been formed over the centuries.

Equator Baptism Ceremony

The Line Crossing Ceremony is a unique nautical tradition celebrated when a ship crosses certain geographic coordinates, such as the equator, the Arctic Circle, the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

The celebration of this event tries to make life on board a little more fun and interesting by engaging everyone on board, including those not involved in the ceremony itself. As each of these “lines” crosses, a number of traditional celebrations take place aboard the ship.

The ceremony itself is usually a “baptism” or “initiation” ritual for those crossing the line for the first time. This can include a variety of trials and rituals, which can be as varied as the vessels and crews themselves. These can include water fights, performing various tasks, and going through the “sea” (usually a pool or vat of water).

At the end of the ceremony, the newcomers are usually presented with a certificate confirming their successful completion of the ceremony and their new status as “experienced” sailors. This certificate becomes a symbol of achievement and a memento of that special moment in their maritime career.

The Line Crossing Ceremony is an exciting way to mark an important moment in their voyage at sea and to strengthen the bonds between crew members. It reflects the spirit of adventure and discovery that is the essence of life at sea.

Line Crossing Ceremony

Like the Equator Crossing Ceremony, the Line Crossing Ceremony – or crossing a certain latitude accepted as an important geographic marker, such as the Arctic Circle or the Tropic of Capricorn – is celebrated with special rituals and celebrations. The ceremony may include various trials, such as water fights or the “baptism” of newcomers.

Crossing the International Date

The International Date is a meridian 180 degrees east or west that serves as a “date change line. When a ship crosses this line, the date changes by one day.

When this line is crossed, the crew often marks the moment with a special ceremony. One of the most common elements of this tradition is the Golden Dragon award, a certificate or medal that sailors receive in recognition of their crossing of the International Date. The image of the dragon is a symbol of power and great voyage, and it is often used in the design of these awards.

The ceremony usually includes the presentation of a Golden Dragon to each crew member who crosses the International Date for the first time. There may be a varying number of rituals or trials based on the traditions of a particular ship or crew.

“The Golden Dragon” is a symbol of the adventure and discovery that awaits every sailor on the high seas.

Exchanging Flags

This is an ancient maritime tradition that continues to exist today. This custom is the exchange of flags between ships meeting at sea as a sign of respect, recognition and friendship.

The essence of the tradition is as follows: when two ships come close enough to each other, they raise their national flags as a sign of greeting. Then, as a sign of respect and mutual recognition, they exchange their flags.

The exchange of flags is not just a formality. It’s an act of international friendship and solidarity that accentuates shared responsibility for maritime safety and welfare. 

Ships usually keep the exchanged flags as mementos. They can be displayed on board ship or even preserved in a museum.

There is even a special procedure called the “Flag Exchange Ceremony,” which may be performed under special circumstances, such as a visit from a high officer or when ships from different countries meet.

This maritime custom continues to be an important part of seafarers’ culture and traditions, reflecting the spirit of camaraderie and international brotherhood at sea.

Bell ringing

The ringing of a ship’s bell is not just a maritime tradition, but also an important element of the navigational system that still retains its significance at sea to this day.

Since ancient times, the bell has been used on ships for various purposes. It served not only as a means of measuring time (with a certain number of strokes marking the hours and watches), but also as a signal in case of danger.

One of the main uses of the bell on the ship is its use as a signaling device in poor visibility conditions. In fog or bad weather, when visibility is limited, the bell serves as a means of warning other ships of its presence.

There is also a tradition of ringing the bell on special occasions. When entering or leaving port, the bell is rung as a sign of greeting or farewell. It may also be rung during celebrations on board, including the celebration of Seaman’s Day or the arrival of a high officer.

Finally, the ship’s bell is traditionally rung on New Year’s Day. At midnight on New Year’s Day, it is naval custom for the ship’s chief officer to ring the bell eight times, signifying the end of the old year, after which a junior officer strikes eight more times, welcoming the new year.

Thus, the ringing of the bell remains an important maritime tradition that symbolizes the link between past and present, and plays an important role in navigational and social life at sea.

Sailor tattoos

Seafarer tattoos are another iconic aspect of maritime culture. Not only do they represent unique art, but they also have special meaning. For example, an anchor tattoo usually symbolizes stability and loyalty to the profession, and the image of a turtle usually means that a sailor has crossed the equator.

These are just some of the many nautical traditions that exist in the world today.

Maritime life is full of amazing traditions and stories. From silent laws to colorful tattoos, sailor culture continues to inspire and amaze with its depth and diversity. 

We hope this article has given you a taste of some of these fascinating aspects of maritime life.