This article is the first in a series about the VMM community written by Executive Director David Jordan. 

As executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, I’m always looking for ways to expand my maritime education. And there’s nothing like learning from sailors. So I jumped at the chance to spend some time with our wharfinger, and celebrated author R. Bruce Macdonald to talk about his new book Never say P*g, The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions.

Bruce Macdonald is not a superstitious guy – but whenever he begins a long voyage, he drops some coins in the water and things have always gone well. It began as a spontaneous instinct to empty his pockets as he was casting off on a voyage many years ago. The trip was so successful, he kept doing it. And he was “thrilled to find out later that this is a thing that’s been going on for hundreds of years.” Macdonald acknowledges that while there’s a lot of science to sailing, especially these days, it has always taken a great deal of faith for sailors to cast off from shore and be at the mercy of the ocean. Hence the rich world of maritime superstitions.

The original title of Macdonald’s new book Never say P*g! was simply, The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions. It started when someone asked him why you can’t whistle on board a boat. Macdonald set about looking for the origin story of whistling (you don’t want to goad the gods to whistle back with a gale force wind!). This led him to start trying to answer the seemingly simple question “What other maritime superstitions do you know?” He started writing down all the superstitions he could think of. He planned to type it up and pass it around to other sailors as a fun way of sharing.

Then he started to wonder if he could collect superstitions from all three coasts and the Great Lakes. And the project started to snowball into something that could be published. So, he picked up the phone and started talking. Macdonald says people tended to share their superstitions quietly, not wanting to  admit that they have them.

Once he had collected a few hundred superstitions, the project transitioned from a research exercise to an artistic process. Macdonald began making woodcut prints to match the superstitions.  He admits it would have been simpler to do line drawings, but the woodcuts made sense to him. You’ll understand why when you see his evocative woodcut prints throughout the book.  They have a medieval look to them. 

Most of the art in the book is not Macdonalds’s and has a Victorian quaintness to it. Some of the superstitions do feel quaint and suit the adorable illustrations. For example, “It is good luck to be ‘breathed’ upon by a whale when it spouts.” But others feel elemental, like manta rays being demons that can drag a ship to Davey Jones’s Locker. MacDonald’s woodcut art is a better fit for these superstitions. I ask him if there are any superstitions he finds tedious to follow. He says  he has found himself making Buster Keaton-like maneuvers to maintain the practice of always stepping to or from a boat with the right foot first.

We talk about how many of the superstitions are directly related to ancient belief systems and religions. “I do believe we are spiritual beings.” And maybe even more so when we’re out on the water and at the mercy of the deep and unknowable power of the ocean.

My only complaint about Never Say P*g  is that there are no  blank pages to add your own superstition. Macdonald and I agree that many copies of the book will have notes in the margins as they are passed on and around. For whether we like to admit it or not, superstitions are an inextricable part of life on the water.

When I ask MacDonald why he thinks superstitions still hang on, he says “if they give you comfort or confidence, that can be useful. If you look back at some of the origins, some of them just make sense…and whether or not you believe in Neptune, you’re entering into a different realm when you head out to sea.”

Never Say P*g, The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions is a vast and chaotic collection of superstitions that is sure to delight, horrify and protect any stripe of sailor. I look forward to seeing copies of the book tattered and dogeared around the harbours of the world.

Join Bruce Macdonald in celebrating the launch of Never Say P*g on May 26 at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.