What’s in a name?

Doug Scott.

Plenty, if you want to stay afloat, according to ancient boat naming traditions.

Naming, or renaming, a boat is like christening a baby, says celebrant and boatie Doug Scott.

“Until a thing has a name, it is nothing. If we are proud of it we will name it,” says Doug, who has performed countless boat naming ceremonies over the past 25 years, from an Optimist sailing dinghy to a super yacht.

According to legend, every vessel’s name is recorded in the Ledger of the Deep, and is personally known to the Greek god of the sea Poseidon or Roman god of the sea Neptune, he says.

Respecting the gods

If you are renaming a boat you must “expunge” all reference to the old name, including name plates, logs, life jackets, engine plates and sails, and not bring the new name aboard until it has been formerly given.

“To change the name of a vessel without consulting a god is to invoke his wrath, so in order to change a boat’s name a serious ceremony is used to appease these ancient gods of life, the sea and the winds,” says Doug.

A boat naming ceremony typically involves a welcome and opening prayer (but no religious ministers or flowers as both are too connected to funerals and as such are considered bad luck) and acknowledgment of all involved, including the designers, builders, owners’ family, sailors and passengers.

“I like to add some pomp and ceremony with grand gestures to the various points of the compass, significant attributes of the vessel and old traditions of the sea,” says Doug.

Red ribbons are often used as a tribute to the blood of the labour that went into building it, and if stepping the mast, coins of the year of the build or refit are placed under the mast, being careful not to remove coins that are already there, he adds.

“They are used in the event of a disaster and loss of life on board, to show willingness to pay for safe passage into the afterlife. Likewise, slits are cut into the floats of a net and coins inserted to show willingness to pay for one’s catch.”

Usually women’s names are chosen, however names ending in ‘a’ are considered unlucky.

“Humble names are best as they don’t attract attention from the troublesome gods, plus then you don’t tend to look a plonker if you run aground and need help,” advises Doug.

“I find people use connections to family or places, or strong feelings to come up with a name.”

Doug, who lives two minutes walk from the Waipu Boat and Fishing Club in Northland, has owned 24 boats, and renamed all of them bar one. He’s even named his blokart.

Doing things right

“If you find a ‘Marcheta’ about, it has probably been my grandfather’s, my father’s, mine or my son’s vessel – from P-Class to 52-footer.”

Doug says he loves the connection to history and past rituals that have been practised for thousands of years.

“People I’ve done ceremonies for tend to start by thinking a name change is simple and afterwards almost always acknowledge the sense of history, dignity and value of ‘doing things right’ that they feel afterwards,” says Doug.

However, not everyone takes these nautical traditions to heart.

David Peet, a former Commodore and life member of the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, recently changed the name of his 13m launch from the ‘Betty May to ‘Excel’, without seeking Neptune or Poseidon’s permission.

But he did notify his insurance provider, Coastguard and the marina office, as well as updating his EPIRB registration and radio licence.

The rest he left in the lap of the gods.

“We did a major makeover and added a flying bridge on top of it. The old name didn’t suit the new image,” says Dave.

“We had lots of drinks celebrating the new boat. As long as it’s well lubricated it’s all good.”

*Under Waikato and Bay of Plenty regional council bylaws, all non power-driven vessels longer than 6m, and all power-driven vessels longer than 4m, must be clearly marked with a minimum of two letters or numbers (not the vessel’s brand, make or model).

The characters must be at least 90mm high and legible at a distance of no less than 50 metres.

Smaller vessels that are exempt should be clearly marked somewhere on or in the vessel, with the owner’s name and contact details, in the event the vessel is lost or stolen.

Under Department of Internal Affairs regulations, the same rules apply to vessels operating on Lake Taupo.

Sailing superstitions

Never take bananas on a boat, as they bring bad luck.

The colour green is unlucky, as it is associated with land, and the risk of running aground.

Women on board are bad luck because they distract the crew and anger the sea, causing treacherous conditions.

It’s bad luck to sail on Thursdays (God of Storms, Thor’s day) or Friday (the day Jesus Christ was crucified), the first Monday in April (the day Cain killed Abel), the second Monday in August (the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed), and 31 December (the day on which Judas Iscariot hung himself).

Never whistle on a boat, as it will change the wind and upset the sea.

Egg shells should be broken into tiny pieces, to stop witches using them as boats and stepping aboard.

Red heads bring bad luck to a ship – if you meet one before setting sail, speak first to stop the curse.

Don’t pass the salt pot directly to another crew member.

Words that bring bad luck on board are ‘drowned’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘good luck’. Also things to do with the land, such as church, pigs, foxes, cats and rabbits.

Flat-footed people are unlucky.


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