Speaking Like a Sailor

August 2021 Multimedia Joan Wenner

Nautical ceremonies are something virtually every boater enjoys, whether informally at the yacht club or watching some great occasion in admiralty via the media.

Back in the day when yachting was strictly a royal pastime, beginning with Cleopatra and carried on with gusto by England’s King Charles II and Russia’s Peter the Great, the pageantry of military splendor and rank demanded full display, both afloat and ashore. The flaunting of a private navy went hand in hand with the enjoyment of wealth and high position. Nautical celebratory etiquette remains popular around the country and the world, through boat parades, launchings and christenings with accompanying fanfare both simple and elaborate, and always highly anticipated.

Many pleasure boat launchings and yacht club commissionings (spell that p-a-r-t-y) remain worthy of much attention along with Change of Watch ceremonies, racing trophy presentations, and new member parties; all the most delightful of exercises. The quasi-naval uniform of blue blazer (worn by crewmembers of the HMS Blazer long before becoming the preferred attire for yacht club officers) with breast pocket patch featuring the club’s burgee has pretty much been dispensed with modernly. In the unlikely event your commodore requests formal attire, store the flip flops and at least slip on your best boat shoes for a ceremonial occasion.

With today’s hurried lifestyles, memorable nautical moments such as launching a just-purchased vessel could be relegated to a quick shoving off to try out the new toy after being slashed. It should not be.

First, it’s fun, and it’s almost an unbreakable rule of the sea to not participate in the age-old tradition of christening the craft by cracking a champagne bottle on the hull, or a “pouring” if you’d rather. It dignifies your vessel as officially becoming a part of the family and is an especially photogenic highpoint.

Secondly, most everyone has heard how superstitious mariners are with the line blurred pretty much between superstition and tradition. Whatever your belief, it is best to observe maritime custom to assure fair winds. Do note it’s considered bad luck if swung but not successful in smashing the bottle the first time, so to forever stave off bad luck make sure the christener really gives it a whack if choosing the smashing route.


Christening of a new vessel is one of the oldest traditions in the marine community which history traces back to the very beginning of sea travel. It is believed that early ceremonies required the use of blood (yes, blood!) to christen a vessel and to that end, christening took its toll on captured enemies as well as available livestock. As time went on and more and more ships were placed into service, the protocol became more civilized and less violent.

It is interesting that it’s said no formal ceremony has ever been established for this occasion. The U.S. Navy does suggest some loose guidelines, but leaves the actual planning and execution of the event up to the individual shipyard, though there are a few programs that can be accessed by a little searching on the Internet. Typically the christening ceremony is part of the launching event and combined in one ceremony, but can be scheduled separately and is well within the limits of proper maritime protocol.


This is the final phase, the event that takes place after the vessel has completed its sea trials and is ready to start its duties for the new owner. A recreational boater can make the whole activity simple by eliminating the unnecessary “keel-laying” celebration and moving right along to a combined launching/christening. Such a plan leaves only one grand event to organize with your invited guests.

Naming Crafts

Naming of the cherished boat is also a time-honored tradition in the maritime world. For a re-naming, says one exceptionally knowledgeable boater I know, it is first necessary to state you are proceeding to bribe Neptune to forget he ever heard of the _________ (insert the boat’s previous name) as it is christened, and then a toast is poured for the guests in attendance while Neptune is asked to add the new name to the rolls of the sea; finally, a third toast must be offered to placate the four winds. 

Since boat names are not subject to copyright, we are free to seize upon whatever one suits our fancy and make it ours. In these days of mass production, this conferring of a bit of individuality makes it all the more important. Invoking mood or alluding to natural phenomena can be: Orion, Nocturne, Wanderer, North Star, Southern Cross, Quest and the like. Occupations or hobbies are popular: Off Call, Ace, Blue Chip or for a fisherman in Florida hunting for billfish, the Billfold, or Reel Affair, or a play on a family or person’s name are always favorites, as are names preceded by “Sea” or “Lady.” You could also drift through the “peek book” of pleasure boating, Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts, for inspiration.

Down With The Ship

The origin of the phrase that the captain must go down with the ship is not a MUST like it was in the 1800s. When oceangoing steamship captains had a problem, they WENT down with the ship as pretty much there was nothing else to do in the north Atlantic.

Tracing the phrase down to an article, "Transatlantic Captains" in an 1886 issue of Harper's New Monthly magazine:

"A terrible affliction in the domestic circle is often obliged to restrain its claims that the tide waits for no man may carry out to the sea him who has devoted his life in its service. They are brave men, and the record of an ocean disaster often ends thus: 'The Captain went down with the ship.'"

Before that there was a kind of "mythical halo" surrounding a ship captain and in another Harper's Monthly article 15 years earlier, it was written that, "No monarch can be more absolute than he in the control of every thing onboard his ship."

Interestingly, Capt. E.J. Smith of the Titanic went down with the ship because some believe he felt it was his fault for putting his better judgment aside by following orders of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line) to beat the transatlantic speed record of its rival at the time so as to garner more passengers and the publicity that would gain. He likely knew he would never captain a ship again and would never overcome that blow to his integrity and competence.

Maritime Phrases

Many phrases we use today had nautical origins. Here’s a small sampling to dazzle and amaze your fellow boaters.

“Cut of his jib” derives from the days of sailing ships where nationality and rigs could often be distinguished by their jibs. A Spanish ship, for example, had a small jib or none at all. Large French ships often had two jibs and the English normally only one. From ships, the phrase was extended to men. The nose, like the jib of a vessel arriving in harbor, is the first part of the person to arrive at a designated place; figuratively, it implies the first impression one makes on another person.

“Mind your P’s and Q’s,” as in behaving one’s best, had nautical beginnings as a method of keeping books on the waterfront. At a time when sailors were paid a pittance, seamen drank their ale in taverns willing to extend them credit, so barkeeps kept a tally of pints and quarts each consumed. On payday every seaman was more or less forced to remain somewhat sober to keep their wits about them to check the tally for accuracy of what each owed. Sobriety usually ensured a measure of good behavior, hence the meaning of “mind your P’s and Q’s.”

“To be three sheets in the wind” comes from a time period when ships were under sail, referring to the lines used to control the sails of these vessels. When the “sheets” are cast to the wind (i.e., let go), it would cause the ship to shudder and stagger, thus a comparison to a drunken sailor— “three sheets in the wind.”

“When my ship comes in” was actually a legal phrase as far back as 1536, by which individuals promised to repay their debts within a specified number of days after the safe arrival of their ships.

Do you know what “dress ship” refers to? When “full dressed” is the order of the day as opposed to simply “dressed”? Or the history behind the “burgee” from the old French word burgeis. meaning “owner”? See www.fyi2000.com for more.

For maritime customs see Nautical Etiquette & Customs by Lindsay Lord, foreword by Waldo C.M. Johnston, 2nd ed., Cornell Maritime Press, Centerville, Maryland, 1987.

For origins of more phrases see www.fyi2000.com. The author, a longtime boating law writer, has contributed past articles to the magazine.

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