Boaters are a fun loving yet superstitious bunch. For as long as mankind has sailed the seas, there’s been ceremonies to mark the launch of a new vessel. It’s how boaters celebrate welcoming their boats into the world, and ensure safe passages for a lifetime of adventures on the water.
The practice of christening boats actually started thousands of years ago in ancient Greek and Phoenician civilizations as religious ceremonies performed to ensure safety for sea-going vessels. These ceremonies date back thousands of years and varied around the world, some even involving human or animal sacrifice. Our current, less savage, practice of christening a boat with champagne arrived in 1891. It was Britain’s Queen Victoria who first smashed a bottle of champagne against a hull, launching the Navy cruiser HMS Royal Arthur.
Hosting a proper christening ceremony not only connects you to a nautical tradition rooted in ancient times, but is a reason to celebrate with friends and family. Here’s what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to do, to launch your boat in style!
What You Need to Christen Your Boat
-Your boat (It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway)
-Friends and Family to Join in the celebration ceremony
-Lots of champagne, wine or sparkling cider (To drink)
-A branch of green leaves (We’ll explain)
-A pre-scored ceremonial christening bottle in a fine-mesh containment bag (This ensures the broken pieces of glass don’t end up in the water.)
When to Christen Your Boat
There are actually days on which you should NEVER christen your boat, or you chance bad luck and misfortune. As you’ll see, most of the days to avoid are based on religious events, and sailors and seafarers have followed these traditions for centuries. For that reason, you’d be wise not to break with tradition. Here are the days to avoid:
All Fridays – Yes, any Friday is considered bad luck. This is likely for religious reasons, as Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This may seem like an unusual reason. Even so, the US Coast Guard waits for the weekend to christen their new boats. It’s simply part of a long tradition, and boaters won’t break it.
All Thursdays– You may be aware of Norse mythology, and “Thor” the god of storms and thunder. It’s believed that holding a boat christening ceremony on a Thursday provokes Thor and turbulent seas. So, to avoid the rath of Thor, just pick another day.
First Monday in April– This day has another religious connection. It’s marked as the day when Caine slew Abel, condemning Caine to a life of wandering.
Second Monday in August– This day is denoted as the day God destroyed the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone.
December 31– It was on this day that Judas felt so much sorrow and regret, seeing Jesus condemned to death, that he committed suicide by hanging.
Gather Your Family and Friends
Once you’ve decided on a fitting day, go ahead and get out the invitations to gather at the location you choose to christen your boat. The most common places to hold a boat christening ceremony are marina slips, anchorages and moorings. And, you’ll want to make a quick maiden voyage if you’re christening at a location, being sure to rig the vessel before the ceremony, avoiding any possible delays or glitches.
Serve Something to Toast With
Once everyone arrives at the boat, gather them together and prepare for a toast. If you’re deciding what to serve, boat captains traditionally served red wine when christening a boat. Today, a wide range of spirits are enjoyed, with champagne being the most popular. But some prefer other liquors such as rum or brandy.
Give a Toast
With the guests gathered and their glasses full, it’s time for the toast. Begin by welcoming guests, thanking them for coming, and reveal the boat’s name. You can then say a few words about the boat. It’s common to talk about the merits of the boat, and where you plan to sail it. You can even include a poem.
Lay the Branch of Green Leaves on the Deck
Once the toast is done, you should lay the branch of green leaves on the deck. The branch symbolizes safe returns from your journeys, and serves as a good luck symbol. You don’t need to be concerned about what type of branch you choose – any branch with green leaves will do. The branch will need to stay on the boat through the christening ceremony and the maiden voyage. After that, you can toss it overboard.
Break the Bottle on the Bow
After the toast and the laying on of the branch, it’s time for the most exhilarating part of the boat christening ceremony – breaking the bottle! First, move everyone to the bow (front) of the boat. Once there, the captain traditionally breaks the bottle somewhere over the bow – a cleat, anchor roller, or anywhere else. However, don’t break the bottle directly on the bow itself, as it can chip paint and damage woodwork.
If you’re not keen on breaking a bottle, you can also pour a bit of champagne, or your preferred drink, over the bow.
Seal it by taking a Maiden Voyage
The fact is, no christening is complete until you take a maiden voyage of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a long one, even drifting out to your anchorage or mooring qualifies. Once you’ve done this, there’s nothing more to do but enjoy the congratulations!
Renaming a Boat?
If you bought a used boat that already has a name, and you want to change it, there are rules to follow as well. Again, boaters are a superstitious lot, and we don’t want bad luck and misfortune to befall your boat.
Before you plan a christening ceremony, you’ll need to thoroughly remove all instances of the boat’s old name and identity. You even need to completely remove the old name BEFORE you say the new name out loud, or bring onto the boat anything with the new name.
To remove the old name on the exterior, you’ll need to remove the exterior paint or lettering. To do this right, you’ll also need to check whether the boat has ever been repainted. If it has, you’ll need to get down to all the previous layers and literally scrape off the old name. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply paint over the old name. The same goes for the interior of the boat. Make sure there are no fixtures, badges, clothing, coffee mugs, engravings, upholstery, or decorations remaining with the old name. You get the drift! Now if you have paperwork like maintenance logs, receipts or cruising journals, you’ll also need to cover the old name with whiteout.
The rules of this tradition are so steadfast that if you get through the whole process, christen your boat and then find a trace of the old name, you must christen it again!
We know this is a lot to do, but for the love of your boat and maritime tradition, it’s worth it. So, let us be the first to say “congratulations” on your new boat!