Jonathan Eyers, author of, “Don’t Shoot the Albatross: Nautical Myths and Superstitions” and “Yacht Were You Thinking?: An A-Z of Boat Names Good and Bad”, graciously wrote an exclusive article for us at Puget Sound Maritime as a view into his newest book regarding the superstitions of vessel naming and vessel renaming.
Please enjoy the article below, and our warmest sincerest appreciation ‘across the pond’ in England to author Jonathan Eyers.
In hindsight, Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council would probably agree with the rest of us that asking the public to come up with a name for their new Antarctic survey vessel was really just asking for trouble instead. The public voted overwhelmingly for Boaty McBoatface. The NERC, desperately clawing back both their senses and their dignity, opted to name her after a famous naturalist instead.
The debacle certainly proved that there’s no wisdom in crowds (and probably even less when the crowds in question are amassed on Twitter), but for a few weeks in the spring of 2016, the ideas behind actually naming a boat became a topic of watercooler conversation among wry Brits who may have never tied a bowline in their lives.
Of course, those of us who actually take to the water rather than just smirk about such analogue pursuits from behind a keyboard know that naming a boat is not something to take so lightly. The superstitions governing the how, where and when of sailing are legion, and even the most regulation-hungry of bureaucrats have nothing on the fate-watchers of the sea. But it is naming a boat, before one even starts, that is perhaps the most prescribed part of this whole sailing malarkey.
An identification number would probably suffice for government pen-pushers, insurance firm money-grabbers and, let’s face it, air-sea rescue. But a number is a soulless way to identify a boat. We name our craft for the same reason World War Two air crews named their planes. These aren’t just vehicles or machines. Our boat isn’t a beast of burden. When we are aboard her, she holds our fates in her metaphorical hands. Giving her a name affords her due appreciation and respect, acknowledging her role and importance in the whole endeavor.
So choose her name carefully. She may reject a name she doesn’t like, and misfortune will plague anyone who attempts to sail her. Unfortunately, most of the superstitions every salty sea dog in the marina can reel off at you take the form of prohibitions, and help little in the way of finding a name that is going to both suit and satisfy the boat rather than stir up a maelstrom of wrath, either from her or from fate itself.
Don’t give her a name that starts with the letter M (the thirteenth letter of the alphabet). Don’t give her a name that ends with the letter A (it’s simply against nature to end with something that belongs at the beginning). Don’t give her a name that is seven letters long (don’t ask me where this one came from – the logic behind some of these superstitions has been lost to centuries of repetition without explanation).
Don’t name her after a reptile (they live only on land – don’t name her after birds, unless they are seabirds, for the same reason). Don’t name her after sea monsters, strong winds, storms, lightning, tsunamis, fire or anything else that might harm her (and, historically, that list was long considered to also include women – boats were stubborn mistresses prone to fits of jealously and didn’t need to be reminded that they must share their skipper with another lady).
On sea as well as on land, it’s wise to avoid tempting fate with names that will inspire a vindictive “Let’s see about that.” The British Royal Navy insisted on naming no less than four doomed ships HMS Invincible. One ran aground and sank in 1758; another was driven onto rocks in 1801, with 400 crew drowning despite two vessels coming to rescue them; a third sank in a storm in 1914; and the worst fate struck the fourth in 1916, sunk by German warships in just over a minute after a suspiciously good shot hit her magazine and the resulting explosion tore her in half. Of the 1,032 crewmen on board, only six were pulled from the water alive.
Fate isn’t always so cruel, of course. Give your boat a coyer name and impish fate will still oblige with swift retribution if duly tempted. Do you remember Gary Hart? He was a rising star of the Democrat Party in the 1980s, considered a frontrunner to lead the party ticket into the 1988 presidential election. Until, that is, he was caught canoodling on a yacht with a younger woman who wasn’t his wife. The yacht’s name – Monkey Business.
When choosing a name, it pays (literally) to remember that many sailors are superstitious about changing a boat’s name, even a bad one, after she has been launched. “What a ship was christened, so let her stay,” as Long John Silver says at one point in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Renaming ships (especially merchant vessels that passed from owner to owner) was common during the Age of Sail. Finding it difficult to crew them was also rather common.
Renaming a boat might seem like an attempt to escape the attention of fate by hiding behind a disguise, and deviousness like that would go neither unnoticed nor unpunished. And that’s if the boat doesn’t reject the new name herself.
Supposedly there are ways to legitimately rename a boat, usually involving an arcane ceremony designed to draw attention to the fact that there is no attempt to don a disguise and escape fate’s gaze. Every sea dog in the marina will tell you a different version of the ceremony: one will tell you the boat needs to be drydocked first, the other that the ceremony necessarily involves scuttling her; one will tell you that the logbook, the name plaque or decals and anything else bearing her name need to be burnt (with the ashes scattered at sea), the other will tell you to go even further than that, get a new mast and burn the old one.
And then when all that is done, you would need to go through the proper christening ceremony again – this should actually involve wine rather than champagne, and specifically red wine, symbolizing the blood of a human sacrifice that was used to mark the birth of a new vessel in grislier times.
Even if you’re one of those more cynical (or, from your perspective, enlightened) types who thinks all of this is superstitious nonsense, you should still bear in mind that you’re probably in the minority. You’re not going to own that boat forever, and she might still have some resale value. But that won’t be decided by the state of her hull if you’ve emblazoned the back of it with an awful superstition-violating name. If nothing else, that dodgy name which seemed such a good idea when you first came up with it, could be the deciding factor as to whether someone buys her from you – or leaves her sulking, rusty and barnacled and unloved, in the corner of the boatyard. Maybe then you’ll be ready to accept some luck you make for yourself.