How to Christen Your Boat!

Historical Origins

What is behind this tradition? Christening a boat means good good luck and safe travels. It goes way back. We as rowers have taken this tradition from ancient seafaring societies. The Greeks wore olive branch wreaths around their heads, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new boat to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed an ox, the Turks sacrificed a sheep, and the Vikings and Tahitians offered up human blood. “The boat christening events certainly had a religious tone to them. The name name of a favored god or god of the seas was often invoked. In the Middle Ages, two friars would often board British ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow.” 1)

Today’s ceremonies are less spectacular. The religious aspect of ship christening died during the Reformation, especially in Great Britain. Royals, nobles and or high rank military joined the crew for a secular ceremony. They celebrated and drank – from the “standing cup”—.  After taking a drink, the presiding person poured what liquid was left onto the deck or over the bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel..

Christening Your Boat: Suitable Liquids

Christening a rowing boat

The right liquid to christen a rowing boat is up to you. Most clubs use water or champagne. Funny note: The United States borrowed this ceremony from the contemporary English tradition. Mainly for their war and battleships. Militaries used to break a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Over the next century, the ritual of breaking or pouring of some “christening fluid” remained, but the fluid itself varied wildly. Here is a list of liquids used in the USA:

  • The USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all christened with whiskey.
  • The USS New Ironsides was double-christened, first with a bottle of brandy and then with Madeira.
  • Other ships were teetotalers, and launched with water or grape juice. Christened three times, the USS Hartford was, blessed with water from the Atlantic Ocean, the Connecticut River and Hartford Spring.
  • Launched by her official sponsor, the USS Kentucky was christened with spring water, but as the battleship slipped into the water, onlookers gave her a baptism more fitting of her namesake state and bashed small bottles of bourbon against her sides.
  • The USS Maine, the Navy’s first steel battleship, with champagne in 1890

What about champagne? Champagne is the most used liquid nowadays and most common in rowing clubs. It became en vogue because of the societies association with power and elegance. 2) Plus: Champagne bottles are thick and heavy, they are not so easy to break. It is a challenge for the presiding person to destroy it and ones it is  destroyed, the released gas bubbles inside the liquid perform a wonderful noise. Champagne or not champagne – here is a structure how to set up your christening ceremony:

Best Day for Christening a Boat: Sunday!

Christening @ World Rowing Credit: Benoit Jeanett

The club I joined did well. If you want many of your club friends to participate, you will likely want to christen your boat on a weekend when all of your friends are free. So, Sunday is the best day. Our event started at 10.00 am. If your club members are sensitive to religious days consider:

  • Friday is unlucky likely because Jesus was crucified on this day of the week. In fact, if a new Coast Guard boat is finished on a Friday, they always wait until Saturday to christen it.
  • Thor’s day: Thursday is a bad day. He’s the god of thunder and storms.
  • Cain and Abel day: The first Monday in April is the day.
  • The second Monday in August is the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

Silence Is Golden

Select a person of honor to execute the christening ceremony: an elderly ex-president, the last championship winner, a sponsor, the best Junior Crew. Explain to them beforehand what to to.

And what to say: provide an explanation on the name of the boat, recite a poem, or tell an interesting short story of your last exercise. Feel free and get  inspired.

And speak loud. The audience wants to listen. They would like to know what you say.

Decide, whether you want to pour the champagne out of a glass onto the rowing shell or do you prefer to pour the champagne out of the bottle? Let the honorable person take the bottle. He or she should shake it up, pop it open and pour some over the bow of the port or starboard hull!

President and Captain

Before and after the ceremony, it is up to the president or the captain to take over and give a short speech. They welcome members and friends, thank them for joining, and provide further explanation on the name of your boat. This is also the time to thank the helpers, the sponsors and the persons who have funded the boat. You can give a toast to all of them.

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