11 facts about ships and boats that might surprise you

11 facts about ships and boats that might surprise you

Fun facts


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Some are perhaps just old folks’ tales but the stories of most will definitely surprise you. There’s no denying that the vast waters of the world guard more than just one secret…

#1 My Revenge

A 14th-century French noblewoman became a privateer (a private person or a ship engaging in naval warfare) to avenge her late husband’s death. 

When her husband was executed for treason by the French king, Jeanne de Clisson, also known as de Belleville or the Lioness of Brittany, patrolled the English Channel to target French ships, often killing their crew. She continued her pirate endeavors for 13 years, leaving only a few people to bear witness to her killings. 

She became part of the Black Fleet and outfitted three ships which were painted black with red sails. The flagship was named My Revenge.

#2 Good luck vs bad luck superstitions

Cats on a ship bring good luckCats on a ship bring good luck — Shutterstock

Spending weeks or months on a ship, stories and superstitions are an inherent part of the life of a sailor.

To name just a few, whistling is considered bad luck as it can bring about strong winds. In fact, the only person allowed to whistle on a ship is the cook as it means he is not eating the food.

Bananas might turn a boat’s luck ill, too. Especially when it comes to fishing boats as it is believed that if bananas are aboard, the fish won’t bite and there might be even mechanical mishaps. As soon as the hidden bananas are discovered and removed, the boat’s luck turns around.

On the other hand, cats bring good luck. British and Irish sailors would often adopt a black cat, which might sound counterintuitive as in some cultures a black cat is considered an evil omen. However, there is some logic to it as cats hunt down and get rid of rodents, who usually live on ships and might chew on ropes or eat food. This practice was even adopted by Vikings in Northern Germany between the 8th and 11th centuries.

#3 Not enough semaphore flags

At the beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, Admiral Lord Nelson made a now-famous call to arms to all his men, through semaphore flags.

The whole message read “England expects that every man will do his duty” although the last word “duty” was not the original which Nelson himself wanted. Initially, he had written down “do his best”, but because of a lack of flags, they had to use “duty” instead.

#4 Heads

Need to use the toilet on a ship? Ask for the heads instead. The name comes from the times when regular sailors went to the ship’s front — also called head or a bow — to relieve themselves. The toilets would be regularly washed out by the normal wave action. 

Only the captain enjoyed his own private facility near his quarters.

#5 Knots

The device used to measure boat speed to this day is still called the “log” even though it has nothing to do with an actual log these days — flickrThe device used to measure boat speed to this day is still called the “log” even though it has nothing to do with an actual log these days — flickr

The measurement that ships (and planes) use for navigation is the nautical mile. One nautical mile per hour is called a “knot”.

The origin of the word “knot” comes from the olden days when the speed on the ships would be measured by throwing into the sea a log attached to a rope with evenly spaced knots. As the ship moved relative to the log, the number of knots during a certain period of time would be counted to measure the speed of the vessel.

The device used to measure boat speed to this day is still called the “log” even though it has nothing to do with an actual log these days.

#6 Lyubov Orlova on the loose

Sea world stories have always been full of abandoned spooky ships — perhaps not dissimilar to Lyubov Orlova who has been on the loose since 2013. 

The Russian ship was commissioned during the times of Yugoslavia and used mainly for expeditions to Antarctica. A few years ago, it broke loose from a tugboat during a storm and has been drifting across the North Atlantic ever since. Some people believe the ship is taken over by cannibalistic rats… but be it either way, the dark and quiet vessel roaming around in the international waters has been labeled as dangerous by some.

#7 “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”

Cannonballs were kept on a square brass tray called a “monkey” — ShutterstockCannonballs were kept on a square brass tray called a “monkey” — Shutterstock

The phrase, “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” comes from the times of old warships. 

The “balls” refer to cannonballs that were made of iron. They were kept on a square brass tray called a “monkey”. In very cold weather, the brass would contract in size, so a square pyramid of cannonballs that was made on it would literally fall off. The reason they were kept on brass was the fact that iron rusts very fast, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to have your cannonballs rusting into the thing they were lying on.

#8 Quarantine

The noun quarantine comes from Italian quaranta giorni or forty days. It comes from the Venetian policy of quarantining ships from plague-stricken places for 40 days, ensuring no one infected is on board.

From the 17th century onwards, the term was extended to “any period of forced isolation”.

#9 Swedish Vasa


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Short-lived was the voyage of the Swedish warship Vasa, or Wasa, which sank just 1,300 meters into her maiden cruise in 1628. 

She was salvaged of most of her valuables and left in what is now a busy lane just outside of Stockholm harbor until the late 1950s. Since 1988 it has been placed in the Vasa museum in Stockholm.

#10 The tale of Hugh Williams

We might never find out whether the tale of unsinkable Hugh Williams is true or not at all. 

In 1664, a ship sank in the Menai Strait just off the coast of Wales. But one of the 81 passengers survived: Hugh Williams. More than a hundred years later, in 1785, another ship sank in the Menai Strait and, again, from the 60 passengers aboard, only one survived — Hugh Williams. To add more mystery to the tale, the year 1820 marked the third instance of sinking in the Strait, with the only survivor being Hugh Williams.

#11 Youngest person to sail around the world 

The 14-year-old Laura Dekker set out in 2012 to sail solo around the world. 518 days later, she arrived in Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten in a 12.4-meter two-masted ketch called Guppy. At the age of 16, she became the youngest person in the world to solo circumnavigate the world.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Next you can try White Shark Café and other surprising facts about world’s oceans or browse Kiwi.com Stories for more articles.

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