maritime tattoo lore

Carla Davis

Sailing culture is rich in tradition and superstition, and woe betide those who think they can ignore the old ways. Like the time we set sail from Kourou, French Guiana, on what turned out to be a Friday. Never leave for a voyage on a Friday is an old sailing tradition. We encountered some horrible and completely unexpected standing waves when exiting the river mouth at which point we realised it was Friday and we speedily dropped the anchor at the Salut islands just offshore for the night to “end” our voyage and restart it on Saturday. Still we had a terrible passage to Tobago (since we were actually aiming for Barbados) and our lesson was thoroughly learned. Do not incur the wrath of Neptune.

Tattoos have long been a language in sailing culture thought to have started with Captain James Cook’s visit to the Pacific islands in the 1700s. His crew got tattoos as souvenirs and took tattooing back to Europe with them. Maritime tattoos then developed their own language and superstitions. I am now cleared to get two swallows (one for every 5000 nautical miles sailed) a turtle (for crossing the equator) an anchor (for crossing the Atlantic) and a sailing friend suggested I get a crown too for doing it all with my kids. I’m not sure I’ll be needing the “pig on the knee, safety at sea. Cock on the right, never lose a fight”

The swallows particularly resonated with me. Swallows return to the same location every year after an extraordinary seasonal migration and so came to symbolise a safe homecoming. They were also a popular motif in Victorian jewellery, the Victorian’s were big on hidden meanings in their jewels which is a discussion for another day, for now here’s a list of maritime tattoos and their traditions and meanings:

For sailing accomplishments:

Swallow – every 5000 nautical miles sailed.
Anchor – crossing the Atlantic
Fully rigged ship – sailed around Cape Horn
Golden dragon – crossed the international date line
Hula girl – stationed in or sailed to Hawaii
Red and green nautical stars on chest – won a bar fight in a foreign port
Turtle – crossed the equator and had a visit from King Neptune’s court
Golden turtle – crossed the equator and the international date line
Crossed anchors in web of left hand – sailed all the oceans
Crossed anchors in web of right hand – sailed the seven seas

Polar bear – crossing the arctic circle 

For rank onboard:

Crossed anchors in web of hand – boatswain
Dragon – sailed to a Chinese port or served in Asia
Harpoon – member of the fishing fleet
Rope around the wrist or ‘hold fast’ across the knuckles – deckhand
Dagger through a swallow – a lost comrade
Dolphin – navy submarine force
Crossed cannons – Naval gunners mate
Little red devils – working in engine room
 

For protection:

North star or compass rose or nautical star – to find your way home
Shark – stops you getting eaten if you fall overboard
Chicken on right foot and pig on left foot – survival of a shipwreck
Twin propellers – one on each butt cheek to propel you to shore (yes, really)



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