What’s in a Boat Name?

I must admit I have had a fascination with boat names for many years. It probably stemmed from when I lived on the River Thames at Chertsey and I used to spend many a happy summer day lolling on the decks of an old Thames Barge (grandly named ‘Sunbeam’ whilst a similar barge a few berths down was nobly named ‘Atlas’) watching all manner of craft ply the river. It was particularly interesting to realise many of these craft were very old indeed and the practice of boat naming was is highly thought of today as it was back in the old days. The cross section was broad and in many ways you’d think that the names that were given to craft would have long been exhausted but this appears not to be the case. However, when you realise that every subject of interest, anywhere, to anyone, has been thoroughly searched and raided to provide names for past and present and doubtless future generations of floating craft.

Names of towns, cities, villages, counties, countries, royalty, cartoon characters, film stars, mythology, the stars, planets and heavens have all been thoroughly trawled for representation upon the bows and transoms of a thousand, yea, ten thousand craft that ply the waters of the world.

How does one go about the tricky business of naming a new boat? And even trickier, the deadly serious business of even re-naming an existing craft. Clearly the nautically inclined bucket of seawater that all folk carry around in the top of their skulls goes into overtime at boat naming time and the results of their endeavors can show the results of brilliance, non imagination, scallywag humour, self-praise, self-pity, corporate boredom or even complete wackiness. The ‘association psychology’ kicks firmly into gear whenever the delicate issues of naming the new addition to the family or company comes into fruition.

“So, like what?” I hear you grumbling, “What the hell does he mean?”

Well, basically, one only has to take a stroll around a well-packed marina to see how some folks think when it comes to ‘boat naming’ time. A shiny plastic 40′ Riviera laden with expensive goodies and two twenty thousand dollar jet skis was named ‘No Limits’, clearly an attribute to the very capable money earning capabilities of the well heeled person who owned it. ‘Costa Lotta’ on another plastic and glass creation was surely either a slight boast or deep sigh of despair from the owner. Either way, he could still clearly still afford it! The ones that make me heave however are the ducky double names made up from half of one name and the other half of the other! ‘RoySue’, ‘JanMark’, ‘FranJean’, ‘BobMeg’ and so on…yuk! I even saw one made up of the whole families names muddled together, ‘Jentonsules’… what? How could anyone do that? Poor bloody boat.

Work boats, tugs, ferries and other corporate craft fare a little less better. Tugs are invariably named, ‘Atlas’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Poseidon’, ‘Troy’, ‘Stalwart’, ‘Triton’ and the favourite ‘Leviathan’. You’d hardly get one called ‘The Cecil’ or ‘Nancy Mincing’. You just couldn’t feel it; the name in the former cases has to reflect unlimited, unremitting brute force. It’s tradition.

Infamy of one kind or another plays its part in not naming boats too. A doubly superstitious bunch, seafarers, they tend to steer well clear of ‘Titanic’, ‘The Mary Celeste’, ‘Hesperus’ and ‘The Lusitania’ for clear cut and obvious reasons. One could safely bet a couple of crates of rum that no one with his feet squarely on planet earth are likely to name the family yacht, ‘The Saddam Hussein’ or ‘Twin towers’ over the next few years or so. Stands to reason really if you think about it. No one really wants to be associated with disasters or mayhem, except of course the oddball who named a boat I saw many moons ago called, ‘The Family Row’….can’t think why at all though!

Tongue in cheek is alive and well and wry humour is well represented among many boaties who may have had a few reasons to dwell over their choices available. ‘Midlife Crisis’ often crops up, ‘Kids Inheritance’ is another and ‘Don’t tell the bank’ was another that always raises a smile. ‘Iownit’ and ‘Itsmine’ tell a story of financial triumphs over struggle and adversity, in their own way. Sports boats, however seem to reflect the devil-may-care attitude that anyone under thirty seems to cultivate nowadays. Ski boats abound with ‘Hot Spurt’, ‘Pink Thing’, ‘Wet Dream’ or ‘Thruster’, the usual testosterone fuelled twaddle. I’ve not seen ‘Shaved Head’, ‘Tattoo’ or ‘Silly beard and Nipple-ring’ slapped onto a long suffering ski boat yet, but give it time, it is bound to come. Jet skis don’t seem to be given names but ‘Whiner’, ‘Mozzie’, ‘Blue Fumes’ and ‘Weekend Lover’ could well be in the running here, ‘Annoyer’, of course topping the list. ‘I’m going too fast’, may even eclipse that.

Years ago, on the waterways both here in Aussie and back in England, fleets of hire craft used to be rented out on almost every river and stream, estuary and lake. Whole fleets of small timber boats, powered by Stuart Turner ‘pop pop’ engines would be named after flocks of birds, planets and so on, very pleasant. However, I always remember a very famous hire boat company on the River Thames that owned only three rowing skiffs. They were respectfully named, ‘Er be is’, ‘Er be mine’ and wonderfully ‘She be ours’. Aah! Nostalgia!

Tacky of course, is everywhere if you care to look but they can be in disguise. ‘Isle of View’ (I love you) was one. ‘Water Otter’ (Kettle?), ‘My Folly’, ‘Good Ship Lollypop’ (No, please!) and ‘Popeye’ (Good grief). Catamarans do it too!! ‘Catscan’, ‘Two up’, ‘Cat O’nine tails’, ‘Cat Fight’ etc. One I did like was simply, ‘The Big Cat’ and the tender was called ‘The Little Kitten’. Tender names can be good. A boat I saw was called ‘Bottom’ (presumably after the Shakespearian play) naturally ‘Tender Bottom’ was the dinghy. Another was ‘Canary’, the tender ‘Canary’s Egg’. I am sure there are thousands out there undiscovered, at least by me.

Wacky names abound by the score. You don’t have to look far. One name tickled me by its utter nuttiness. It was a small boat crammed with day-trippers. Cheekily, along the whole length of the boat was painted. ‘Two eggs, two toms, bacon and beans – no chips’. I would have loved to have known the reason for that one! Equally wacky, was ‘Sir Osis of the River’ (Cirrhosis of the liver), very clever indeed. One very interesting trait I have noticed amongst sleek and beautiful restored classic craft was the almost reverential names of Indians. ‘Pocahontas’, ‘White Feather’, ‘Minnie Ha-Ha’, ‘Laughing Waters’. Once again, a traditional thing, I suppose. A friend of mine aptly named his ex-police launch, ‘Old Bill’, and raised many a smile along the riverbank.

CHANGING A NAME

Oh dear, this really is supposed to be a no-no, isn’t it? Yet, like all traditions nautical, it can be done, but must be done properly. The whole idea of this article came about through an email that was sent to me describing the ceremony required to change the name of a boat. It is taken very seriously in certain quarters and apparently, if the Gods of the Sea are not appeased, bad fortune may accompany the vessel. In years past, sailors have bemoaned the fact that the unluckiest ships are the ones that defied the gods and changed their names the wrong way.

SO HOW IS THIS DONE?

According to old lore, each boat is recorded in the infamous Ledger of the Deep and is held by Poseidon or Neptune, the God of the Sea. Therefore, if the name is to be changed, the name must be purged from the ledger and therefore Poseidon’s memory. All names of the old boat must be obliterated from all boat papers, log books etc by whatever means (white-out pen is acceptable!) as well as all life rings, signs, nameplates and even keys. Once that is done, prepare a metal tag with the old name written on it in water-soluble ink. Next buy some reasonable champagne (not cheapo stuff!), this is for the Captain and Mate to quaff during each stage of the ceremony. Begin as follows:

“Oh Mighty Ruler of the Seas and Oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, implore you in your graciousness to expunge for all time from your records and recollection (here insert the old name of the vessel) which has ceased to be an entity in your kingdom. As proof thereof, we submit this ingot bearing her name to be corrupted through your power and forever, be purged from the sea (at this point the tag is dropped from the bow into the sea). In grateful acknowledgment of your munificence and dispensation, we offer these libations to your Majesty and Court” (At this point, half a bottle of champagne must be poured into the sea from East to West, the remainder to be drunk by present guests.)

It is usual then for the renaming ceremony to be undertaken immediately following the ‘purging ceremony’ although it may be done later. You will need more champagne because there are more Gods to appease! Begin the renaming by calling Poseidon.

“Oh Mighty and Great Ruler of the Seas and Oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, implore you in your graciousness to take unto your records and recollections this worthy vessel hereafter for all time (here insert the new name for the vessel) guarding her with your mighty arm and trident to ensure the safe and rapid passage within your realm. In appreciation of your munificence, dispensation and in honour of your greatness, we offer these libations to your Majesty and Court (at this point, one bottle of champagne, less one glass for Master and Mate, are poured into the sea from East to West).”

The next step is to appease the Gods of the Winds. This assures you of smooth seas and fair winds. Because the ‘Four Winds’ are brothers, it is permissible to involve them at the same time, but during the ceremony, you must address each ‘Wind God’ by name. Begin as so:

“Oh Mighty Rulers of the Winds, through whose power our frail vessels transverse the wild and faceless deep, we implore you to grant this worthy vessel (insert boat’s new name) the benefits and pleasures of your bounty, ensuring us of your gentle ministrations, according to our needs. (Facing North, pour a generous amount of champagne into a glass and fling towards the North and say). Great Boreas, exalted Ruler of the North wind, grant us permission to use your mighty powers in the pursuit of our lawful endeavors, ever sparing us the overwhelming scourge of your great breath.” Face West, repeat saying, “Great Zephyrus, exalted ruler of the West wind grant us permission to use your mighty powers in the pursuit of our lawful endeavors, ever sparing us the overwhelming scourge of your wild breath”. Face East, “Great Eurus exalted ruler of the East wind grant us permission to use your mighty powers in the pursuit of our lawful endeavors, ever sparing us the overwhelming scourge of your mighty breath”. Face South, “Great Notus, exalted ruler of the South wind grant us permission to use your mighty powers in the pursuit of our lawful endeavors, ever sparing us the overwhelming scourge of your scalding breath”.

Any champagne left over, will be the beginnings of a suitable celebration in Honour of the occasion. Note: Only then may any items bearing the new name be allowed on to the boat, be sure the names are not shown before the ceremony is over.

To the non believers who may howl in derision at the aforesaid antics, I have only this to say, it is a dangerous and difficult enough business venturing out into the mighty oceans (we have the VMR to deal with after all) but the rumours have persisted down through the centuries and even today modern seaman quake at the thought of flying in the face of the Gods of the Seas, after all why be smart…. would you risk it?

CONCLUSION

Next time you see a boat with an unusual or noteworthy name, spare a thought for the reasons it may have come into being. Rest assured that it is not a light undertaking to come to a final decision about a boat’s name. In many cases, it has taken many years. In my own particular case, it took five years of careful ponderings whilst building and finally ‘The Nicky J Miller’, was chosen in honour of my long-suffering partner in crime whilst building our boat. The tribute was entirely for her, she was enthusiastic in every way, never bemoaning the time or the money spent. It’s not many girls who get a shipwreck name after them!…Just kidding, Hey Dreamboat!… Not you Shipwreck! (Old sailors mating call!)