by Michael Bell

Leave your ham sammich at home.

Pigs are very good swimmers.
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Ocean State is a well-earned nickname for Rhode Island. Beginning long before recorded history, people living around Narragansett Bay have depended on the sea for food, transportation, trade, recreation, and even artistic inspiration. But balancing the sea's bounty is her destructive potential. Whoever gains her treasures must also accept her wrath. No wonder this giver and taker of life has created an abundance of folklore among those who sail beyond the horizon.

Fishermen are no exception. Confronting danger and uncertainty on a daily basis, they tend to be conservative, even superstitious, about how they conduct their work. Since their success and survival are linked to elements they cannot control (including the weather, the migratory habits of fish, and the market price for their catch) or can influence only indirectly, if at all (such as a dwindling supply of fish, government regulations, and international treaties), fishermen put great stock in things they can control.

Down through the generations, Rhode Island fishermen have established an unwritten code that tells them not only what to do but also what not to do. These traditional taboos retain a powerful grip on behavior even though their origins, and any logical explanations for them, may be unknown. When pressed for an explanation, a fisherman who avoids turning a hatch cover upside down might say only that to do so is "bad luck." Searching for an adequate answer, one old-timer finally said, "It isn't good seamanship to turn a hatch upside down. It don't belong that way. I've seen it done a few times and we always had trouble."

Fishermen often tell personal experience stories to show that, no matter how illogical these beliefs may seem, they are not to be taken lightly. Oh, they say, you can joke about them and laugh on the outside, but in the end you'd better heed them. A young mate on an offshore dragger told me that the first two boats he was on were both sold and that, contrary to accepted tradition, their names were changed. "One boat sank and the other had nothing but problems," he said, convincing him that he would never change the name of a boat if he bought one.

And, just as inexplicable, pigs are bad luck on a boat. Even mentioning the word is tempting fate. A retired fisherman, whose career spanned the days of sail and the electronics revolution, referred to this animal as "the curly-tailed guy, you know, the pea eye gee." He was "a kid" when he first heard of this prohition from an older crewman, so he "paid no attention" to it. He thought, "That guy's gotta be nuts. What's that got to do with it?" Of course, he found out:

As I got older and went skipper, we're sitting at the table one day having dinner and this guy was talking and he come out with that word. Me and this other fella had been speaking about the old-timers, how crazy they were about the pig. I looked at him and said, 'Don't say nothin'. If you say anything, then everybody's laughin'.'

So, we're fishing along, you know, and it was rough that day. We're haulin' back, scallop drag full of scallops, rocks and everything else. When it came up, the boat took a roll and the scallop drag went way out. The guy that was on the winch head wasn't too familiar with it, you know. He could handle it, but not on a rough day. Now, the scallop drag's turned around, she's comin' like this. And we got this boom across the middle of the deck that we had just put new lights on—nine lights, all brass, underwater lights. Great big, beautiful lights. Brand new, the first trip!

That scallop drag come in, headed right for that brand new strip of lights that was on a pole almost at big as the booms were. It hit that goldarned thing and doubled-up like a horseshoe. We finally landed the drag on deck, in a mess. That boom cost eight hundred and some dollars. Eight hundred and some dollars in them days was like five thousand today! So, anyway, after that a few things happened and the word was brought up again. And I never, ever seen it when it was brought up that we didn't have some kind of trouble. I don't know why. I have to say it this way: Everytime it's mentioned, something happens—to me!

Fishermen usually are not eager to test these taboos. One old salt made this point by telling me a story that "happened a long time ago." He prefaced his legend by explaining that "Friday was always a superstitious day. I had a lot of friends that wouldn't sail on a Friday." Then he described how "some Englishmen" set out to prove this superstition wrong. They began by building a boat. They laid the keel on a Friday, launched the boat on a Friday, and even christened it Friday. Naturally, it was Friday when they embarked on their maiden voyage. And, no surprise, they haven't been heard from since.

It's been said that someone who would go to sea without a darn good reason would go to hell for a holiday. Based on some of the sea stories I've heard, the difference between the two isn't always so clear.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the June 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

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This article last edited April 21, 2004

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