A close friend prepared to board a charter boat with his family for a fishing excursion while on a Florida vacation several years ago. His mother brought along some bananas for a between-meal snack.
The captain of the boat adamantly said those bananas were not coming on his boat. My friend’s mother, perplexed, offered mild protest. The captain told her: “Put them on that hook over there. Believe me, they’ll be here when you get back.”
The presence or consumption of bananas is universally regarded as inviting terrible luck to a boating or fishing trip, especially among captains of charter fishing boats. The origin of this superstition begins with the sea, often a dangerous, mysterious place. Any of us who’ve experienced boat trouble knows the unique feeling of helplessness of drifting in the wind on a boat with a dead motor, hoping someone comes by and tows you back to the ramp. This kind of atmosphere is ripe for breeding superstition. People emotionally invested in an outcome but powerless to affect it, such as a ballgame, horse race or making a fish bite, bend toward superstition. Being in a broken-down boat without the knowledge or tools to fix it is a similar feeling.
Bass tournament anglers put bananas on board their competitors’ boats to “get their goat” (a horse racing term originating from taking the favored pet goat of another horse to throw off their performance before a race). In some parts of the United States, tournament anglers refer to bananas as “money pickles.” Some think the oil from banana peels repels fish.
Theories abound as to the origin of this powerful superstition. Banana boats held the reputation for being cheaply constructed, top-heavy and overpowered for speed. They needed the bananas on the market as quickly as possible to avoid spoilage.
When one of these boats wrecked and sank, a common occurrence, the bananas in the hold would float to the surface, leaving a debris field of nothing but bananas. People saw this as a bad sign and associated bananas with bad luck.
In one wreck off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1903, The Brighton ran aground, forcing the crew to dump 26,000 bunches of bananas overboard. They washed up on Atlantic City Beach, and enterprising locals scooped them up and sold them on the streets.
Bananas grow in the tropical regions of Central and South America. Sailors in these regions brought bananas aboard their ships to eat during long voyages across the sea-and often brought along unwanted travelers with them, mainly snakes and spiders.
Eventually, the unwanted travelers escaped from the bananas, and the ship grew infested with insects, spiders or snakes, some of them poisonous. The crew associated the pests with bananas, and they became bad luck. Ship captains also abetted this belief by spreading rumors of bananas being bad luck so the crew wouldn’t bring the bananas and, therefore, the pests aboard.
Fulton, Kentucky, contained the major ice plant on the railroad between New Orleans and Chicago. Banana shipments by rail received 162-pound blocks of ice at Fulton, flushing out tarantulas and snakes from the bananas, inciting fear and provoking the ire of workers.
Discarded banana peels powered many pranks on old cartoons, but crewmembers on ships did slip on them, providing another negative banana connotation. Also, bananas ripen quicker than other fruits and give off ethylene gas during this process. This gas causes other fruits near the bananas to ripen faster as well, leading to spoiled fruit and another black mark against bananas.
In ancient Hawaiian lore, legend says men in dugout canoes went on fishing excursions lasting weeks at a time. They brought bananas with them to eat, and by the time they spoiled, the fishermen had arrived in productive fishing waters. The fish would start biting after the bananas spoiled. Therefore, bananas brought bad luck for fishing.
The superstition is so pervasive that anything associated with bananas, such as clothing or sunscreen with the word “banana” in the name, banana nut bread or banana muffins, carries bad luck. Some anglers and ship captains will throw any of these offending items overboard if discovered.
This line of thought even extends to a line of underwear with fruits as part of its logo. Stories circulate of underwear pulled up above the pants line by an enraged angler or ship captain, a knife pulled and the offending label cut off after discovery of an occupant wearing this brand. Although a banana isn’t part of the company logo, the potential of these make-believe fruits mixing with make-believe bananas is enough to draw offense.
Now is the heart of boating season. If you see a boat with a sticker on its outboard motor cover picturing a banana with a red line through it, you’ll know why.
Enjoy bananas, banana nut bread, banana muffins or banana-flavored lip balm in the comfort of your home. Just don’t bring them boating or fishing.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a lifelong hunter and angler with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.