Sailors, Ships, and Christenings

by Jon Persson

Sailors are a superstitious lot. Given their propensity for setting out on long voyages into uncertain seas and weather, it is forgivable that undue credence be given to ancient myths of safety and salvation from the savage seas. Perhaps no superstition is given wider berth than the avoidance of any major commissioning of a ship on a Friday—especially true of the christening, or re-christening, of a ship.

Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Waln Morgan, christened the National Historic Landmark vessel Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport’s July 21, 2013 launch. photo by The Mystic Seaport

Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Waln Morgan, christened the National Historic Landmark vessel Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport’s July 21, 2013 launch.
photo by The Mystic Seaport

Some say this derives from the crucifixion of Christ on a Friday, the omen carrying much dread to the stout hearts of the sailors and shipwrights. One may suspect an even earlier source, though; every culture with roots in the sea has talismans against tales of serpents and other monsters of the deep, and charms to coax a fair breeze from the gods of winds. But one never lays the keel of a new ship, nor launches, christens, or departs on a maiden voyage on a Friday.
Champagne is the toast given a new ship before being released to the waiting waters. Tradition holds that a female smash the bottle across the ship’s prow, a matronly act to bring the ship luck. The same is done when re-christening, or re-naming, a ship. Upon the splash and spray of Champagne, hull wedges or cable controls are released, and the ship is baptized in its native waters.
In our enlightened times we may blithely tolerate the old traditions as mere superstition, but every era believes itself to be the most enlightened. In the scientific 19th century, the British Admiralty decided to put the Friday superstition to rest once and for all. A new ship was ordered, on a Friday; the keel laid, and every major event of construction begun on a Friday; her launch and christening, on a Friday; she was even named the Good Ship Friday, her maiden voyage begun on a Friday; and she was never seen nor heard from again.
So, sailor, you are a superstitious lot.
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