Ship naming and launching
The ceremonies involved in naming and launching naval ships are based in traditions thousands of years old.
Methods of launch
There are three principal methods of conveying a new ship from building site to water, only two of which are called "launching." The oldest, most familiar, and most widely used is the end-on launch, in which the vessel slides, usually
sternfirst, down an inclined slipway. The side launch, whereby the ship enters the water broadside, came into 19th-century use on inland waters, rivers, and lakes, and was more widely adopted during World War II. The third method is float-out, used for ships that are built in basins or drydocks and then floated by admitting water into the dock. Technically, this is not a launch, although sometimes erroneously referred to as such.
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The date the ship entered service is also incorrectly referred to by some as its launch date. [See, for example, the cruisecritic.com [http://www.cruisecritic.com/reviews/review.cfm?ShipID=358 review] of
MS Freedom of the Seas, listing the month of its naming ceremony after completion, and immediately before is maiden voyage, as its "launch date".]
History of ship naming
Babylonian narrative dating from the 3rd millennium BCdescribes the completion of a ship::"Openings to the water I stopped;":"I searched for cracks and the wanting parts I fixed:":"Three "sari" of bitumen I poured over the outside;":"To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed."
Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans called on their gods to protect seamen. The favor of the monarch of the seas —
Poseidonin Greek mythology, the Roman Neptune — was evoked. Ship launching participants in ancient Greece wreathed their heads with olive branches, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new vessel as a symbol of blessing. Shrines were carried on board Greek and Roman ships, and this practice extended into the Middle Ages. The shrine was usually placed at the quarterdeck, an area which continues to have special, ceremonial, significance.
Different peoples and cultures shaped the religious ceremonies surrounding a ship launching.
Jews and Christians customarily used wine and water as they called upon God to safeguard them at sea. Intercession of the saints and the blessing of the church were asked by Christians.
Ship launchings in the
Ottoman Empirewere accompanied by prayers to Allah, the sacrifice of sheep, and appropriate feasting.
Vikings are said to have offered human sacrifice to appease the angry gods of the northern seas.
Chaplain Henry Teonge of Britain's
Royal Navyleft an interesting account of a warship launch, a "briganteen of 23 oars," by the Knights of Malta in 1675:
"Two fryers and an attendant went into the vessel, and kneeling down prayed halfe an houre, and layd their hands on every mast, and other places of the vessel, and sprinkled her all over with holy water. Then they came out and hoysted a pendent to signify she was a man of war; then at once thrust her into the water."
Early Modern Age
While the liturgical aspects of ship christenings continued in
Catholiccountries, the Reformation seems, for a time, to have put a stop to them in Protestant Europe. By the 17th century, for example, English launchings were secular affairs. The christening party for the launch of the 64-gun ship-of-the-line "Prince Royal" in 1610 included the Prince of Walesand famed naval constructor Phineas Pett, who was master shipwright at the Woolwich yard. Pett described the proceedings:
"The noble Prince ... accompanied with the Lord Admiral and the great lords, were on the poop, where the standing great gilt cup was ready filled with wine to name the ship SO soon as she had been afloat, according to ancient custom and ceremony performed at such times, and heaving the standing cup overboard. His Highness then standing upon the poop with a selected company only, besides the trumpeters, with a great deal of expression of princely joy, and with the ceremony of drinking in the standing cup, threw all the wine forwards towards the half-deck, and solemnly calling her by name of the Prince Royal, the trumpets sounding the while, with many gracious words to me, gave the standing cup into my hands."
The "standing cup" was a large cup fashioned of precious metal. When the ship began to slide down the ways, the presiding official took a ceremonial sip of wine from the cup, and poured the rest on the deck or over the bow. Usually the cup was thrown overboard and belonged to the lucky retriever. As navies grew larger and launchings more frequent, economy dictated that the costly cup be caught in a net for reuse at other launchings. Late in 17th century Britain, the "standing cup" ceremony was replaced by the practice of breaking a bottle across the bow.
UK ship naming and launching
Sponsors of English warships were customarily members of the royal family, senior naval officers, or Admiralty officials. A few civilians were invited to sponsor Royal Navy ships during the nineteenth century, and women became sponsors for the first time. In 1875, a religious element was returned to naval christenings by Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales, when she introduced an Anglican choral service in the launching ceremony for battleship "Alexandra". The usage continues with the singing of Psalm 107 with its special meaning to mariners::"They that go down to the sea in ships;":"That do business in great waters;":"These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep."
French ship naming and launching
French ship launchings and christenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries were accompanied by unique rites closely resembling marriage and baptismal ceremonies. A godfather for the new ship presented a godmother with a bouquet of flowers as both said the ship's name. No bottle was broken, but a priest pronounced the vessel named and blessed it with holy water.
American ship naming and launching
Ceremonial practices for christening and launching in the
United Stateshad their roots in Europe. Descriptions of launching American Revolutionary Warnaval vessels are not plentiful, but a local newspaper detailed the launch of Continental frigate "Raleigh" at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in May 1776:
"On Tuesday the 21st inst. the Continental Frigate of thirty-two guns, built at this place, ... was Launched amidst the acclamation of many thousand spectators. She is esteemed by all those who are judges that have seen her, to be one of the compleatest ships ever built in America. The unwearied diligence and care of the three Master-Builders ... and the good order and industry of the Carpenters, deserve particular notice; scarcely a single instance of a person's being in liquor, or any difference among the men in the yard during the time of her building, every man with pleasure exerting himself to the utmost: and altho' the greatest care was taken that only the best of timber was used, and the work perform'd in a most masterly manner, the whole time from her raising to the day she launched did not exceed sixty working days, and what afforded a most pleasing view (which was manifest in the countenances of the Spectators) this noble fabrick was completely to her anchors in the main channel, in less than six minutes from the time she run, without the least hurt; and what is truly remarkable, not a single person met with the least accident in launching, tho' near five hundred men were employed in and about her when run off."
It was customary for the builders to celebrate a ship launching.
Rhode Islandauthorities, charged with overseeing construction of frigates "Warren" and "Providence", voted the sum of fifty dollars to the master builder of each yard "to be expended in providing an entertainment for the carpenters that worked on the ships." Five pounds was spent for lime juice for the launching festivities of frigate "Delaware" at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, suggesting that the "entertainment" included a potent punch with lime juice as an ingredient.
No mention of christening a Continental Navy ship during the American Revolution has come to light. The first ships of the Continental Navy, "Alfred", "Cabot", "Andrew Doria", and "Columbus", were former merchantmen and their names were assigned during conversion and outfitting. Later, when Congress authorized the construction of thirteen frigates, no names were assigned until after four had launched.
The first description we have of an American warship christening is that of "Constitution", famous "Old Ironsides," at Boston, October 21, 1797. Her sponsor, Captain James Sever, USN, stood on the weather deck at the bow. "At fifteen minutes after twelve she commenced a movement into the water with such steadiness, majesty and exactness as to fill every heart with sensations of joy and delight." As "Constitution" ran out, Captain Sever broke a bottle of fine old madeira over the heel of the bowsprit.
Frigate "President" had an interesting launching, April 10, 1800, at New York:
"Was launched yesterday morning, at ten o'clock, in the presence of perhaps as great a concourse of people as ever assembled in this city on any occasion. At nine, captain Ten-Eyck's company of artillery..., accompanied by the uniform volunteer companies of the sixth regiment and the corps of riflemen, marched in procession ... and took their station alongside the frigate. Everything being prepared, and the most profound silence prevailing, ... At a given signal she glided into the waters, a sublime spectacle of gracefulnes and grandeur. Immediately on touching the water federal salutes were fired from the sloop of war "Portsmouth", the revenue cutter "Jay" and the "Aspasia", Indiaman. These were returned by the uniform companies on shore, who fired a feu-de-joye, and marched off the ground to the battery ... and were dismissed."
As the 19th century progressed, American ship launchings continued to be festive occasions, but with no set ritual except that the sponsor(s) used some "christening fluid" as the ship received her name.
Sloop-of-war "Concord", launched in 1827, was "christened by a young lady of Portsmouth." This is the first known instance of a woman sponsoring a United States Navy vessel. Unfortunately, the contemporary account does not name this pioneer female sponsor. The first identified woman sponsor was Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson, daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. She broke a bottle of wine and water over the bow of
sloop-of-war"Germantown" at Philadelphia Navy Yard on August 22, 1846.
Women as sponsors became increasingly the rule, but not universally so. As sloop-of-war "Plymouth" "glided along the inclined plane," in 1846 , "two young sailors, one stationed at each side of her head, anointed her with bottles, and named her as she left her cradle for the deep." As late as 1898, the torpedo boat "MacKenzie" was christened by the son of the builder.
Although wine is the traditional "christening fluid," numerous other liquids have been used. "Princeton" and "Raritan" were sent on their way in 1843 with
whisky. Seven years later, "a bottle of best brandywas broken over the bow of steam sloop "San Jacinto"." Steam frigate "Merrimack", who would earn her place in naval history as Confederate States of Americaironclad "Virginia", was baptized with water from the Merrimack River. Admiral David Farragut's famous American Civil War flagship, steam sloop "Hartford", was christened by three sponsors—two young ladies broke bottles of Connecticut Riverand Hartford, Connecticutspring water, while the third sponsor, a naval lieutenant, completed the ceremony with a bottle of sea water.
Champagne, perhaps because of its elegance as the aristocrat of wines, came into popular use as a "christening fluid" as the 19th century closed. A granddaughter of Secretary of the Navy
Benjamin F. Tracywet the bow of "Maine", the Navy's first steel battleship, with champagne at the New York Navy Yard, November 18, 1890. The effects of national prohibitionon alcoholic beverages were reflected to some extent in ship christenings. Cruisers "Pensacola" and "Houston", for example, were christened with water; the submarine"V-6" with cider. However, battleship "California" appropriately received her name with California wine in 1919. Champagne returned, but for the occasion only, in 1922 for the launch of light cruiser "Trenton". Rigid naval airships "Los Angeles", "Shenandoah", "Akron", and "Macon", built during the 1920s and early 1930s, were carried on the Naval Vessel Register, and formally commissioned.
First Lady of the United Statesto act as sponsor was Grace Coolidgewho christened the airship"Los Angeles". When Lou Henry Hooverchristened "Akron" in 1931, the customary bottle was not used. Instead, the First Lady pulled a cord which opened a hatch in the airship's towering nose to release a flock of pigeons.
Thousands of ships of every description, the concerted effort of a mobilized American industry, came off the ways during
World War II. The historic christening-launching ceremonies continued, but travel restrictions, other wartime considerations, and sheer numbers dictated that such occasions be less elaborate than those in the years before the nation was engaged in desperate worldwide combat.
In recent history, all U. S. Navy sponsors have been female. In addition to the ceremonial breaking of a champagne bottle on the bow, the sponsor remains in contact with the ship's crew and is involved in special events such as homecomings. [ [http://web.archive.org/web/20050323033234/http://www.dcmilitary.com/navy/trident/8_36/national_news/] ]
:"(This article includes material from "Ships of the United States Navy: Christening, Launching and Commissioning, Second Edition," which was prepared for and published by the Naval History Division of the Department of the Navy,
Washington, D.C., 1975, and therefore is in the public domain)."
Hull classification symbol
* [http://www.navybook.com/nohigherhonor/pic-ffg58launch.shtml Photos of the 8 Dec 1984 launching ceremony of the USS "Samuel B. Roberts" (FFG 58)]
* [http://www.phillyseaport.org/web_exhibits/ladies_who_launch/ An online exhibit of ship launching ceremonies from the first half of the 20th Century]
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