Boat christenings have deep roots that go back thousands of years. Every maritime and seafaring people had rituals commemorating the launching of a new vessel. They originated in religion and varied according to the customs of the people, but all had certain things in common, such as asking the gods or winds for a prosperous voyage and safe return for its crews.
In Europe, certain christening practices became standard, especially after the Reformation when they became more secular. In England, a new vessel was, at one time, christened by filling a fine silver goblet with wine shared between the owners, splashing it on the vessel and throwing it overboard. As navies and merchant fleets expanded, it became too costly to throw valuable goblets overboard, so glass bottles filled with wine were substituted.
Bottles weren’t always smashed on the hull. Records show that as the USS Constitution ran out, on October 21, 1797, Captain Sever broke a bottle of fine old Madeira wine over the heel of its bowsprit. Whiskey was also used to christen U.S. battleships.
During the 19th century, it became the custom for women to smash the bottles. Internet sources will tell you that it was Britain’s Queen Victoria who first smashed a bottle of champagne (rather than wine) against a hull to launch the Navy cruiser HMS Royal Arthur on February 26, 1891. However, three months earlier, in the United States a granddaughter of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy christened the bow of the Maine, the Navy’s first steel battleship, with champagne at the New York Navy Yard on November 18, 1890.
Many companies today dispense with boat christenings. White Star Line, the company that built and launched the Titanic, didn’t christen any of its liners, scorning christenings as superstition.
Nevertheless, for many, they remain an important way to highlight an industry that is vital to our modern life but too often overlooked.
Naming boats after industry figures or people prominent in public life who have contributed in some way to the inland waterway system remains a rare honor. Those who have boats named after them frequently say it is the most important honor they have ever received.
Boat christenings are an opportunity to celebrate as a team, honor namesakes and crews and encourage safe travel. Hats off to those who take part in this time-honored tradition.