We can't say how far back the superstition goes, but at least among sport fishermen there exists a belief that bananas on a boat are unlucky.
The sea offers plenty of opportunities for turns of ill luck. Fishing boats run aground or become lost. Mechanical failures result in boats floating helplessly adrift. Crew members become deathly sick from mysterious illnesses. Foul weather sweeps in. Any and all of these have been at various times attributed to bad luck.
While the superstitions involving fishermen and their boats are almost too numerous to mention, one particular entry in that category appears to attach almost solely to those who engage in sport (rather than commercial) fishing.
Bananas are deemed unlucky by recreational fishermen and those catering to that trade. Usually this rumor takes the form of the fish not biting on the day when bananas were discovered onboard, but mechanical breakdowns and other mishaps are also pointed to.
Some in the fishing charters business extend their distaste for the fruit to include not only banana ingestibles (fresh or dried chips of banana, banana muffins, plus anything banana flavored) but even to items bearing the word "banana" or anything evocative of it, such as Fruit of the Loom underwear, Banana Republic apparel, and Banana Boat sunscreen. (The prohibition against Fruit of the Loom underthings is particularly baffling because that clothier's logo depicts an apple, leaves, green grapes, currants, and purple grapes, with nary a banana in sight.)
In 2001 The New York Times quoted Rick Etzel of Montauk, New York, captain of The Breakaway, as saying: "Fishermen believe bananas are bad luck. Something about a shipload of bananas that carried some weird bacteria which killed everyone on board. Maybe fictitious, but some people take the banana thing very seriously. A few years back, a guy on one of my charters showed up wearing a Banana Republic T-shirt. Another guy in the group went up to him with a knife and slashed the logo."
When the fishing starts out bad and stays that way, charter boat captains are likely to interrogate their clients of the day as to whether any of them might have brought a banana aboard. When the offending item is found — be it the fruit itself, a banana muffin, or a tube of Banana Boat sunscreen — it is quickly flung overboard. Almost immediately, say those who have performed such exorcisms, the boat's luck turns around — the fish begin biting and a good day at sea is enjoyed by all.
No clear reason exists as to how this superstition came to be. Common explanations include:
- When top-heavy ships of earlier eras would sink, precious little other than the bananas they'd carried would be found floating on the surface, thereby leaving some to conclude conveyance of the fruit itself had led to these naval mishaps.
- Spiders, snakes, and other poisonous vermin living among bananas carried in the hold would, on long haul trips, expand their horizons by infesting other parts of the ship.
- Because the speediest sailing ships were used to get bananas to their destinations before they could spoil, those attempting to fish from them never caught anything while trolling.
- Fisherman became ill after eating the fruit.
- Other fruits would spoil more quickly when bananas were being shipped along with them, causing folks to deem bananas "bad luck." (Actually, it wouldn't have been ill fate that resulted in the spoilage of other foodstuffs, but instead the ethylene gas emitted by bananas as they ripen.)
- Crew member injured by slipping on discarded banana peels.
- Fisherman misses landing the big one due to a case of "the runs" caused by bananas he'd ingested.
- Banana oil rubs off onto the hands of fisherman, thereby "spooking" the fish.
- Early anglers in Hawaii would embark upon lengthy fishing trips in dugout canoes provisioned with (along with other food items) bananas. The farther they went, the fewer the fish, causing some of them to mistake correlation for causation.