Bizarre boating rituals

Horse’s tails, ox blood and the rules of renaming a narrowboat: delve into the weird and wonderful traditions of life on the waterways

Bizarre boating rituals


Sailors have always been superstitious types, and those who served the canals were no exception. They might not have been travelling across dangerous oceans for months on end, but they were still engaged in heavy and sometimes dangerous work in close proximity to water. As a result, a number of boating superstitions developed, some of which were shared with ocean-or river-going sailors and others which were peculiar to the inland waterways.

Horse’s tails
One of the most unusual traditions kept by working canal folk was to tie a horse’s tail to a rudder post – it’s something you can still see on historic working boats in our museums. This tail was traditionally cut from a beloved horse that had died after many years of dedicated service pulling the boat around the network. The shorn tail would be a permanent reminder of the beast, and also a way of transferring some of its beauty and strength to the craft. Perhaps these tails were also intended to charm the water gods? It’s sometimes supposed that the distinctive bow of a Venetian gondola is designed to appease Neptune – god of the sea and also of the horse, who was often depicted riding a chariot pulled by water horses. Might the English tradition have similar roots?

One superstition shared by the wider sailing community is that you should never rename a boat when it’s afloat. To do so will bring all manner of misfortune upon you. Instead, a boat must be renamed when it’s out of the water for blacking or repairs, preferably during some sort of Neptune-appeasing ceremony that involves alcohol and singing (most boaters skip the latter). It’s also said that you shouldn’t name a boat after a loved one – either human or animal – especially if they are alive, as this will also lead to bad luck. The renaming superstition is said to date from an era when names were carved into the wood of a boat – adding a new name would mean removing timber, which would make the boat weaker.

Ox blood
This was used when navvies were constructing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It was added to the lime mortar not for any chemical reasons but because it was believed the blood of a strong animal would strengthen the finished structure, an idea originally conceived by the Romans. However, it’s possible that people believed the addition of blood may also have added some water-repelling properties to the aqueduct.

This one isn’t so much a tradition as a folklore or superstition, but there are dozens of ghost stories connected with our canals. One of the most grisly is the story of the Kidsgrove Boggart, who is said to haunt the Harecastle Tunnel. There are several origin stories but the most popular features either a spirit disturbed by the tunnel’s construction or a woman who was murdered by boatmen and thrown in the canal. She is said to haunt the tunnel, sometimes taking the form of a headless woman, or a ghost boat, or a white horse.

Alan Baker