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THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT

Learn the historic explanation behind the long standing superstition of bananas on boats.
By Capt. Joe Wenegenofsky
Tags: general, inshore, offshore

Superstitions and fishing are two things which have always gone hand in hand. When you consider the innumerable variables that often coincide with a day on the water and influence its outcome, this relationship isn’t at all surprising. On any given trip you could encounter issues with tackle failure, mechanical breakdowns, electronic malfunction, unstable or volatile weather, poorly applied tactics or techniques, physical hazards/injuries, etc. Likewise, a body of game fish or baitfish that have displayed a predictable pattern for a matter of days or weeks could suddenly and virtually inexplicably change behaviors and/or location. Yes, there is only so much predictability in the realm of fishing. Just when you think you have everything dialed in, you know the bite and have your vessel and gear in perfect functioning order, some random “x-factor” goes and compromises your best efforts. With so much inherent uncertainty surrounding a day at sea, many anglers will do whatever they can to avoid putting an inadvertent hex on a trip no matter how silly it may seem.

Of all the fishing superstitions that exist, perhaps the best known and widely disputed is the one pertaining to bananas.
While some captains and anglers discard the notion of bananas being bad luck as nonsensical, those who take it seriously are usually pretty emphatic about their standpoint. On several occasions I’ve seen anti-banana signage posted on charter boats and even stickers bearing a big red X through this “voodoo” fruit. Still there have been plenty more instances where bananas have been forcibly ripped out of an angler’s hand or cooler and flung overboard. Even more bizarre, however, are incidents where something as simple as a tube of Banana Boat sunscreen or a banana nut muffin were discarded into the drink for fear of what calamity they could conjure.

If you’re left scratching your head as to how a seemingly innocent piece of fruit could come to be so maligned, you’re in for a bit of a history lesson. Back in the early days of shipping, it was common practice for merchant vessels to make a pit stop at some tropical destination and restock provisions prior to a long and arduous voyage. Oftentimes wooden crates of bananas would be brought aboard and carry with them a variety of unwanted stowaways such as venomous snakes, spiders and insects or even vermin bearing disease. Before the advent of modern medicine, motor powered vessels and medevacs, one could understand how the presence of any one of these things aboard a close-quartered vessel might be a recipe for disaster. If you scrutinize the Caribbean banana trade in particular, the possibility of encountering one of these toxic interlopers would go up exponentially and this hasn’t diminished in the modern era.

Speaking of the banana trade, back to the 18th and 19th century the only means of conveying this tropical fruit long distances was by ship. Given the rapid rate that bananas would tend to spoil, vessels transporting them had to sail quickly in order to preserve their cargo. Since moving at excessive speed isn’t conducive to trolling while underway, vessels traveling with a hold full of bananas became synonymous with poor fish catching abilities. A meager fish tally, however, wasn’t the only thing a hold laden with crates of bananas could be responsible for. Ripening bananas release copious amounts of ethylene gas which also hastens the ripening of whatever other fruits and vegetables they are stored with. In other words, a bad batch of bananas could theoretically spoil a ship’s entire food supply. Ethylene gas happens to be a natural anesthetic agent as well and could knock out a crewman in great enough quantities. Meanwhile, the methane gas produced by decomposing bananas, if left to accrue in a cargo hold, could actually asphyxiate those working below deck in some extreme cases.

Hitting particularly close to home with sport fishermen is a piece of Hawaiian mythology regarding bananas. According to the ancient islanders, bananas were deemed fruits of the gods and looked at as a delicacy. Therefore, a fisherman attempting to catch fish with bananas in the boat would be considered covetous. Such an act of marked greed would warrant no blessing from the gods and most likely render the fisherman fishless.

Regardless of how you look at it, the origins of the dreaded “banana curse” are pretty far removed from and irrelevant to the challenges and pitfalls facing recreational and commercial fishermen today. Unless an angler happens to be a history buff or dabble in nautical trivia, few are even aware of the aforementioned details described. The notion of bananas being a no-no on boats has just been so deeply ingrained within the seafaring community over numerous generations that it’s largely accepted without questioning. Having the facts in hand, however, are bananas really the “voodoo” fruit they’ve long been portrayed to be or merely a convenient scapegoat for a fisherman to place blame? To quote a good friend of mine and seasoned charter mate, Scott Ostarch, “Bananas are just an excuse for guys who can’t find the fish or can’t catch them.” So firm is he in this belief that he’ll often conceal bananas on the boat and whip them out while cutting fish after a successful trip. The startled and hilarious reactions of Scott’s customers almost always morph into resounding laughter but I wouldn’t try this on just any boat. Depending upon who you sail with and how superstitious they are, such a stunt might just get you thrown overboard along with your banana.

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