Why so scared? The cruise industry avoid the number 13 through tradition and superstition. Credit: RRM

Why are cruise ships missing deck 13?

Author: Gillian Carmoodie

Published on:

Certain cruise ships avoid labelling decks, cabins or itineraries with the dreaded number 13 . But why? We’ve gone digging to trace the origins, and current condition, of cruising’s adverse reaction towards the harmless number 13

Ever heard of Triskaidekaphobia?

Stephen King, renowned author of the macabre, currently lives with the condition. Wartime US president Franklyn D. Roosevelt suffered long-term stress because of it. Classical composer, Arnold Schoenberg, became crippled by anxiety, before perishing on the very date he feared most.

The phobia’s antipathy also causes weird behaviour within the cruise line, airline and technical industries, too. Whole floors and cabins are missing, certain itineraries and sailing dates are avoided, and superstition runs richer than an over-fuelled engine.

Those who understand Greek language may recognise the disorder, but to the rest of us, Triskaidekaphobia refers to fear – or avoidance – of the humble number 13. It’s just a number, right?

Well, to some, it means death and misfortune. A bit like attending Ted Bundy’s stag do, or signing up for Woodstock ’99.

The origins of our adverse reaction to Friday the 13th, and general ill-feeling towards that particular number, remains unclear – yet firmly rooted in our modern society.

Buildings, cruise ships, and even military projects steer clear of that fearsome double digit. Assigning yourself the number 13 is tantamount to summoning Satan, when he’s really angry, and hell-bent on causing untold suffering for everyone involved.

Think Apollo 13. The cursed British submarine HMS K13. The evil Mumbai tram no 13 (that isn’t made up). All remain associated with failure and demise.

Then there's history's sordid events from each Friday the 13th; the 1940 bombing of Buckingham Palace, the murder of Tupak Shakur, the 1989 stock market crash, Uruguayan Flight 571 – and (drumroll please) the Costa Concordia disaster.

Of course, the nautical world remains a highly superstitious one. That’s why each cruise ship has an assigned Godmother for good luck. It’s why coins are welded into the keel of each liner, and it’s why most cruise ships typically have no deck 13. It’s quite common to find there’s no cabin 13, either.

The Costa Concordia disaster unfolding across Friday the 13th, back in January 2012, continues to feed the cruise industry’s contemporary Triskaidekaphobia, but should you really fear the number 13?

Is it really a cursed number from the bowls of a fiery abyss, or simply groundless hogwash that stems from a time before science?

Tarot cards are largely responsible for modern-day superstations. Credit: Shutterstock

Origins: our fear of 13

There’s no confirmed documentation to provide any concrete origin theories, but the earliest testament of unlucky 13 can be found during the European Middle Ages – in the form of a tarot card.

The death card from the earliest known tarot set – Visconti-Sforza (circa 1450) – proudly bears the number 13 across several variants. Death was never going to be seen as a lucky steak (unless attending a Yoko Ono concert), leaving the religion-heavy development of human culture to deeply associate death – and misfortune – with the number 13 forevermore.

This concept was appropriated in society by Antoine Court de Gébelin – the French socialite who inaugurated the tarot’s interpretation as a repository of prediction – when he wrote of the card’s presence in 1781 as "toujours regarde comme malheureux" ("always looked upon as unlucky.")

By 1784, the Germans had taken the marriage of 'death' and '13' to sully the digit’s mantra forever, as Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf reaffirmed Gebelin’s foretelling that 13 brings fatality and misfortune.

Originating around the same time, rumours began to circulate regarding the dreaded “13 at a table”. Documentation of the era showcases the belief that one death would occur between a group of 13 individuals should they sit around the same table.

Quite where that notion came from is still unclear, but someone could do with telling the 13 directors at Tesco.

Fear Friday the 13th. FEAR IT! Credit: RRM/Shutterstock

Why are we afraid of 13?

Superstition loves nothing more than engraining itself with religious matters. From the 1890s, various English-language sources regurgitated the idea that Judas – the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans – was the 13th person to join the Last Supper. And he kind of ruined everything for everyone. Nice one, Judas.

A Norse myth, later popularised during the late 1960s, recounts the tale of 12 Gods attending a feast. Loki – the trickster God, before Marvel Studios ruined the concept – arrived uninvited as the 13th guest, and encouraged one God to shoot another using a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Nice one, Loki.

Besides the religious, mythical and superstitious underpinnings of our cultural fear, humanity seems determined to find connections that aren’t really there. That’s where events related to “deathly and unlucky” 13 enter the picture, largely because philosophy and modern literature tell us so.

For instance, on Friday the 13th of October, 1307, Philip IV of France supposedly ordered the national arrest of the Knights Templar. People take this as gospel, yet the phobia aspect didn’t stray into the public consciousness until the arrest became popularised by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Such was the anxiety around “unlucky 13” that an influential group of New York socialites joined forces to put an end to this superstition, amid other old wives' tales.

They formed a dinner cabaret group, known as the '13 Club', and held their first gathering on January 13th, 1881, at 8.13pm, where 13 people dined in room 13 of a local venue.

The act sprung various copycat groups across North America, where guests could only enter once they had walked under an entrance ladder and placed themselves between small piles of salt.

The activities of each '13 club' regularly made the headlines, while five future presidents engaged with activities – including Theodore Roosevelt and Chester A. Arthur. These clubs eventually faded away as a new generation lacked interest.

Nevertheless, although the '13 club' proved that operating with ‘13’ in the itinerary was far from fatal or cursed, our fascination with Triskaidekaphobia lingers stronger than ever.

For example, the Irish government wouldn’t even permit the cars registered in 2013 to display the number 13 on each vehicle’s license plate – instead replaced with ‘131’ or ‘132’.

And then we get to the cruise industry…

Superstations around '13' run deep in the cruise industry. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM

So, why is there no deck 13 on a cruise ship?

You may have noticed that many cruise ships omit deck thirteen from construction plans. Certain vessels also avoid numbering cabins with the superstitious digit, for fear of bad luck. It’s all based on fallacy and unfounded beliefs, rather than science.

The nautical world remains a highly superstitious realm. From cruise ship godmothers to 'good luck' coins in the keel, tradition sometimes trumps reality.

As such, it’s fairly common to find that decks skip straight from 12 to 14, just as airlines often skip row 13 for the same superstitious fear. That being said – it’s also common for a cruise ship to include deck 13, but skip 17 (should the ship be big enough) for similar reasons.

All this superstition means that deck 14 is, technically speaking, actually deck 13. If you’ve ever found yourself confused about that, don’t panic. You aren’t going mad.

Just to further muddy the waters, certain cruise lines ignore the damnation of 13, resulting in a real deck 13 – although these usually don’t have cabins. Deck 13 is usually reserved for sports – swimming, squash and the like. Just like a contemporary version of the '13 club', Royal Caribbean ships offer activities on that particular level.

Deck 13 rarely offers cabin space for a variety of reasons. The primary motive revolves around the notion that guests may not wish to stay on the ‘cursed’ floor, but you shouldn’t worry if you find yourself there. Certain ship designs mean that it’s unavoidable, but you won’t have Satan for company or a hex placed upon your bloodline.

After all – it’s just a number.

Scared of 13? Seriously, you have nothing to worry about. Credit: RRM

Why you have nothing to fear

"No data exists, and will never exist, to confirm that the number 13 is an unlucky number," claimed Igor Radun of the Human Factors and Safety Behaviour Group at the University of Helsinki's Institute of Behavioural Sciences in Finland. Radun added: "There is no reason to believe that any number would be lucky or unlucky."

"Unfortunately, most of studies dealing with Friday the 13th and the number 13 are solely focused on statistical data, such as accident data, stock exchange data, etc., without any attempt to establish a 'direct' relationship between belief, or superstition, and behaviour," Radun told Live Science.

That mantra also applies to the shipping world. And to those who scream vividly about the Costa Concordia striking that submerged coastline on Friday 13th, it's worth remembering that accidents of all shapes and sizes take place on any date. Studies have disproved any correlation between Friday the 13th and the rate of maritime accidents.

The Titanic sank on Monday, April 15. The MTS Oceanos slipped beneath the waves on Sunday, August 4. Italy’s SS Andria Doria hit the sea floor on Thursday, July 26, 1956. Nothing is specially reserved for each Friday the 13th.

However there is one thing to watch for, and that’s how people’s superstitions influence their actions. Triskaidekaphobia affects mannerisms and behaviour across all recesses of the globe, from vowing to avoid 13 when playing the lottery, to declaring that the fearsome number is actually your favourite; simply to defy the Gods.

The stigma around ‘unlucky 13’ exists only in our heads. It’s up to each person to determine which numbers are lucky and what’s not. Only we can make them as such. It has nothing to do with track records of death and destruction.

Of course, with technical advancements and society’s progress, the cruise industry will continue to take strides towards the future, but as with any timeless superstition – no matter how irrational and unproven it may be – people may still choose to believe it.

Whatever your beliefs, relax and enjoy your cruise – deck 13, or no deck 13.

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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.