Sailing gillnetter

The fishing life is fraught with danger, giving rise to many superstitions. This is a Bristol Bay sailing gillnet boat, familiar to generations of Columbia River fishermen who spent part of each year in Alaskan waters. Motorless boats were required on Bristol Bay until 1951 — long after they became obsolete elsewhere — as a way of leveling the playing field among fishermen and limiting the catch.

Even while we avoid walking beneath ladders or breathe a silent wish when witnessing a bit of space rock burning up in the atmosphere, most of us think the superstitions that once ruled our ancestors’ lives were laughable.

But so long as we resist becoming downright compulsive about them, recalling old folk beliefs can inject feelings of fun and cultural continuity into modern life. It can be a form of tribute to our grandparents.

Here at the mouth of the Columbia River, we occupy one of America’s greatest maritime centers. Dungeness crabbers and “fin” fishermen brave towering winter seas, some dying in the process. They can use a little luck. So it’s natural that some fishing-related superstitions remain part of our lives.

“Two of the main reasons usually cited as favorable to the growth of superstition are dangerous working conditions and the degree on which success/failure is affected by ‘luck’ rather than skill,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. “Fishing has clearly fulfilled both these criteria, in abundance, for centuries, and even the introduction of new technologies has not altered the basic nature of the business, and fishing communities have a reputation for being extremely superstitious. Beliefs clustered around various parts of the life, both on shore and at sea, but at the risk of stating the obvious, it must be stressed that not all fishermen were or are superstitious, or to the same degree.”

There’s a bunch of English folklore with special significance here on the Columbia and Pacific. For example:

• On his way down to his boat, fishermen thought it unlucky to see a rabbit, pig or woman. But worst of all was “to turn back after you had set off from home — even looking back was avoided.” In a similar vein, families must not wave him good-bye.

• “Talking in plain terms about the size of a catch was to be avoided as tempting fate and many words were avoided altogether.”

• “One of the strongest taboos was the word ‘pig,’ and fishermen and their families would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid saying the actual word,” spelling it out instead or using euphemisms like “porker.” Antiquarians have been unable to figure out why this belief sprang up; pigs were a valued farm animal in all seaside towns.

• Whistling was regarded as very dangerous, conjuring up disastrous winds, “although in sailing days a little judicious whistling might be necessary if you were becalmed.” A whistling woman was a particular worry, according to folklorists.

• A child’s caul, a membrane that sometimes covers the heads of newborns, was believed to protect against drowning. Cauls were often advertised for sale up through World War I. They carried an asking price of 30 gold guineas in 1799 as the Napoleonic Wars were getting underway.

There aren’t many of old folk practices or beliefs that we’ll reincorporate into day-to-day life. But it’s nevertheless charming to contemplate a place and a time when girls believed saying “Rabbits!” on a month’s first waking moment guaranteed good fortune for the rest of the month.

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