Sailing Vessels Referred to as ‘She’

The popular ceremony of launching a new ship by breaking a large bottle of champagne across its bow has its origin in the distant past when anything new and yet unused, be it a building, a bridge, a dam, a dyke, or a ship, was perceived to be at the mercy of various gods who had to be propitiated with a live, usually human, sacrifice. 

In the distant past, the rituals concerned with a new vessel’s launching were of profound importance to the future safety of the ship and all who sailed on her. In those times, the propitiation of all ocean deities was taken so seriously that it was even considered unlucky to save a drowning man. It was thought that the drowning person was marked by fate and had been irrevocably claimed by the denizens of the deep. To deprive them of their prey would result in misfortune for the remaining crew. Therefore, at a time when every sea voyage was already fraught with so many unknown dangers, and very few sailors could swim, to rescue a man overboard was doubtless considered near impossible.

In ancient times, it was unheard of to commit a sailing vessel to the waves without the appropriate blood sacrifice to appease the gods of the deep and, in so doing, to bring the ship ‘to life’. In keeping with the tradition of blood sacrifice, the Vikings crushed prisoners under the keels of their long ships when first launching them. In northern European countries, it became customary to enclose valuable objects in parts of the ship, once blood sacrifices were not conducted anymore, to appease the sea gods. The ship’s builder often hid a gold coin for good luck in some recess of the keel, in a hiding place known only to him. Incidentally, the ship’s keel was regarded as its backbone or ‘foundation’, hence, strictly speaking, such a coin constituted a foundation sacrifice. Alternatively, the first nail knocked into the keel was tied with red ribbons to protect the craft from evil influences. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans changed the traditional sacrifice by splashing red wine instead of blood on their vessels. Therefore, the red wine, fruit of the earth, became the emblem of sacrifice. In addition, the Greeks and Romans also appeased the ocean gods by giving all their sailing vessels female names. In this way, such ships became the symbolic ‘brides’ of Poseidon and Neptune, which is why we still refer to all sailing vessels as ‘she’. It was of course presumed that Poseidon and Neptune would not let harm come to their ‘brides’, which set the minds of seafarers in ancient times at rest. 

Today we have replaced the red wine with ‘bubbly’. Champagne, the aristocrat of wines, traditionally linked with new births, beginnings, and celebrations, came into vogue as a christening fluid for ships in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Incidentally, it is considered a bad omen if the bottle does not break the first time, a superstition still believed by many, as the following headlines in the BBC News, April 24, 2007, indicate: ‘Bad omen cast over ship’s launch’, when the champagne bottle failed to smash at a launch in the Southampton dock. 


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