What makes Southeast fishermen go bananas?

Some still believe the old superstition that the yellow fruit is bad luck on boats

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

As Southeast Alaska fishermen shopped in preparation for today's king salmon opener, what did their grocery carts look like?

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Did they purchase coffee, to wake them up for the early bite?

Almost certainly.

Did they obtain beer, for that brief respite after setting the night's anchor?


But here's the big question, and one that reveals much about a mariner's view of the ethereal: did they buy bananas?

"Hell, no," said Wyatt Dalyk, 32, a longtime deckhand who's in Southeast Alaska this season. "At least I didn't, and the captain wouldn't. I mean, we eat bananas at our home. At least I do. But you just don't bring bananas on a boat. You just don't tempt magic."

Why is the banana considered a harbinger of maritime disaster?

The superstition seems to have arisen sometime during the hustle and bustle of early 1700s Caribbean sea trade. Bananas ripen quickly and secrete ethylene gas, which causes everything in the immediate banana-perimeter to ripen and as well.

Naturally, this led to spoiled cargo. Low-lying boats, pushed on by banana-panic, would try to outrun the spoilage window and oftentimes sink.

A crate full of spoiling bananas, all giving off ethylene, would create dangerous levels of gas on already ventilation-challenged ships. Those bananas would also likely be accompanied by all sorts of vermin, an article in Boating World Magazine notes. Suddenly the ship would be filled with poisonous spiders and snakes.

Some things you can control. You can know the water, you can know your gear, you can have a pretty good idea of where to be at what time and how deep to set your line for the optimal catch.

But even with all the skill in the world, it's always a good idea to court good fortune. And that's why the mariner's life is filled with superstition and charm.

For many fishermen - those in Hawaii and Florida especially - that means don't bring bananas on the boat.

"As far as I know, they've always been bad luck on the boat," said Crewman Rick Dirkssen, preparing Friday at Auke Bay. "I don't buy bananas. I don't want to be the idiot responsible for the boat sinking."

Others have no fear of our long, yellow friend.

"I think (the superstition is) nonsense," said Damien Salerno, deckhand aboard the Connie-M.

"I eat (bananas) all the time," said Mike DeLong, skipper of the gillnetter Vindicator. "They're a good source of potassium."

Ahhhhh, yes. Potassium, magnesium, Vitamin C and complex, interlocking B vitamins.

Bananas are grown in more than 130 countries and are considered one of the world's most popular fruits. But they didn't become a commercially viable commodity until the 1820s, when the "Gros Michel" variation was discovered. According to "Battling for Bananas," an article in a 1990 issue of Alaska Science Forum, the Gros Michel "had a characteristic that made long-distance transport possible."

That spread banana-joy outside of the tropics, eventually all the way to Alaska's earliest groceries, the article said.

Even in Juneau? Why, yes.

Gros Michel is likely what's seen in a famous photo of hanging bananas at the old Treadwell Store, taken by Case and Draper sometime between 1896 and 1913 (see ASL-P39-1142 at www.vilda.alaska.edu).

Today's working troller - though jam-packed and oftentimes unsanitary - is a far cry from the oceangoing cargo ship of the 1850s. It's not quite like the ship that brought the fruit to the old Treadwell Store.

But a century and a half of upgrades has done little to alleviate the banana's chilling maritime stigma.

"Frankly," Dirkssen said, "I prefer red apples."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com

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