Superstitions abound in all cultures, but you probably will not encounter a more superstitious bunch of people than sailors.
Why is this? Most psychologists believe that superstitions evolve from a feeling of lack of control. Writer and psychology professor Stuart Vyse states: when something important is at stake, yet the outcome is uncertain, then superstitions are used to restore confidence.
So much about taking a boat out on the water relies on things beyond our control: the weather, the state of the ocean, the mechanics of the vessel; sailors have a lot to worry about. It makes sense, then, that so many superstitions revolve around sailing and cruising.
Of all these though, changing the name of a ship or boat is said to cause the worst luck of all. Why is it such bad luck to change the name of a vessel, after all boats change hands all the time?
This superstition goes back a long time with tales abound of captains renaming their ships in a moment of hubris, only to be met with a tragic watery end. Legend says that when every ship is christened, its name goes into a ‘Ledger of the deep’ maintained by Neptune (or Poseidon) himself. Renaming a ship or boat means you are trying to slip something past the gods and you will be punished for your deviousness.
A more practical explanation is that back when most boats were used to transport cargo, each vessel had its own reputation, good or bad, in ports of call all over the world. A sudden name change would render a boat and, therefore its reputation, unrecognisable and likely cause many problems for the captain and crew.
My present boat had an unpronounceable Dutch name, Klavertje Vier, and, when I decided to change it, I was advised by a local Amsterdam shipwright that one guaranteed way of placating the gods of the seas was to have a virgin piss in the bilge. This presented some practical problems as certified virgins are in short supply everywhere.
I thought about quizzing passing school kids on their status and, if qualified, asking would they mind stepping aboard for a quick slash in the bottom of my boat. This seemed likely to provoke an unsympathetic visit from the local constabulary, so I decided not to pursue the idea.
Another alternative suggestion was much less fraught by either supply problems, or with potential legal peril. The proposal was to scuttle the boat out of sight of land for cleansing, then refloat and rename it. However, not many of us will do that one, at least not on purpose, so I was left with the dilemma that has happened to us all: you find the perfect boat with everything you want in a vessel and, while the price is a steal, the name is just awful! So what do you do?
Whether or not you are superstitious, if you decide to change the name of your boat fellow sailors consider it good form to perform a renaming ritual. A ceremony that alerts the sea gods and shows them you have no underhanded motives.
With a little preparation and, if done in the right way, you can rename your boat without invoking the wrath of Poseidon or, if you have just bought a new boat, you can use the boat naming ceremony described below to bring
good luck and fair weather to your vessel.
Because every vessel is recorded by name in the Ledger of the deep, it is logical therefore, if you wish to change the name of your boat, the first thing you must do is purge its name from the Ledger and from Poseidon’s memory.
Boat name purging
The process begins with the complete removal of every trace of the boat’s current identity. This is essential and must be done thoroughly.
You can use White-Out to cover the boat’s name in log books, engine and maintenance records, ships library books etc., but it is much easier to simply remove the offending documents from the boat and start afresh.
Do not forget the life rings.
Do not under any circumstances carry aboard any item bearing your boat’s new name until the renaming ceremony has been completed! I once heard of a ceremony where the owner assured everyone that all references to his boat’s old name had been purged from her. A couple of weeks later, he discovered he had missed a faded name on a floating key chain. He was advised to start over, perhaps with a little extra libation for the ruler of the seas. Unfortunately, he declined.
Since then, his boat has been struck by lightning, had its engine ruined by the ingress of the sea, been damaged by collision and she finally sunk! It pays to be thorough. It may be superstitious, but as every sailor knows, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Once you are certain every reference to the old name has been removed, all that is left to do is to prepare a metal tag with the old name written on it in water-soluble ink. You will also need several bottles of reasonably good champagne. Plain old sparkling plonk will not cut it.
Since this is an auspicious occasion, it is a good time to invite your friends to witness the event and to have a party. Make certain that you invite everyone who is important to the boat.
Name purging ceremony
Begin by ringing the ship’s bell to call Poseidon, invoking the name of the ruler of the deep as follows: “oh mighty Poseidon, great ruler of the seas and oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, we implore you in your graciousness to expunge for all time from your records and recollection the name (here insert the old name of your 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 powers and forever be purged from the sea.” (At this point, the prepared metal tag is dropped from the bow of the boat into the sea.)
“In grateful acknowledgment of your munificence and dispensation, we offer these libations to your majesty and your court.” (Pour at least half a bottle of champagne into the sea from east to west. The remainder may be passed among your guests.)
Boat naming ceremony
You must conduct the naming ceremony immediately after the purging ceremony. For this you will need more champagne.
Begin by again ringing the ship’s bell to, once again, call 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 recollection this worthy vessel hereafter and for all time known as (here insert the new name you have chosen), guarding her with your mighty arm and trident and ensuring her of safe and rapid passage throughout her journeys within your realm. In appreciation of your munificence and in honour of your greatness, we offer these libations to your majesty and your court.” At this point, one bottle of champagne, less one glass for the master and one glass for the mate are poured into the sea from west to east.
Alternatively, by all means continue the age-old good luck tradition of breaking a champagne bottle over the bow of your new boat. Make sure that the bottle is wrapped in a plastic bag to ensure that the broken pieces of glass do not end up in the water. Use as little force as necessary to break the bottle.
Appeasing the gods of the winds
The final step in the renaming ceremony is to placate the gods of the winds, which is an essential step for rag and string powered cruising sailors. This will assure you of fair winds and smooth seas. Because the four winds are brothers, it is permissible to invoke them all at the same time.
Facing north, pour a generous libation of champagne into a champagne flute and fling to the north as you intone: “oh mighty rulers of the winds, through whose power our frail vessels traverse the wild and faceless deep, we implore you to grant this worthy vessel (boat name) the benefits and pleasures of your bounty, ensuring us of your gentle ministration according to our needs. Eurus, Zephyrus, Boreas and Notus, exalted rulers of the winds, grant us permission to use your mighty powers in the pursuit of our lawful endeavours, ever sparing us the overwhelming scourge of your wild breath.”
Once the ceremony has been completed, you may bring aboard any and all items bearing the new name of your vessel. If you must schedule the painting of the new name on the transom before the ceremony, be sure the name is not revealed before the ceremony is finished. It may be covered with bunting or some other suitable material.
As a final touch place a branch of green leaves on the bow to ensure safe return to land as you take your well-earned maiden voyage.
Good luck, bon voyage and may the gods sail with you. ≈