For centuries, mankind has braved the ocean in an effort to explore the wide-open spaces of the world. Boating is now more of a pastime than a necessity, although many of the old nautical traditions still exist. One of the most enduring traditions of the sea is the concept of naming a vessel. Boats are historically named after women, although it has always been a bit of a mystery as to why this tradition exists.
Since the beginning of recorded history, man has used watercrafts to travel and explore the world. Each civilization has its own traditions regarding naming boats, but they are most often feminine names. While it is not known exactly why ships are named after female figures, there are two prominent theories. One hypothesizes that boats were named after goddesses and other mythical figures, and later shifted to popular feminine names as recognition of gods and goddesses faded.
The second major theory focuses on the basis of European languages. A number of languages, such as German and French, have a complex system of gender involving grammatical terms in which objects are assigned specific masculine or feminine tones. Olde English also used this system of naming, with many inanimate objects such as boats referred to in the feminine form. As the English language changed and evolved, the tradition of using this feminine form for ship names continued and is still present today.
Naming a sea vessel is an important tradition before the inaugural launch of the ship. The majority of vessels are named after important female figures, either historical or personal, with the names often including important women in the captain's life. There is an extensive, precise ceremony that most captains follow to ward off any bad luck. The name is chosen, painted on the ship, and the ship then cast off on its maiden voyage following the blessing.
Selecting a feminine name for a ship must be done carefully and only after thorough consideration. A number of ships are named after historical figures, hoping that the name will bring the ship safely home. Naming a fishing vessel Diana, for example, might be done in the hopes of a good catch, as Diana is considered to be The Huntress of popular folklore. A feminine name is always selected with the idea of safety and protection, and that the sea will mother and protect the vessel on its journeys just as a mother watches over her children.
Ships are not necessarily named after women because men at sea need to be close to a feminine figure. While this might be true for a small number of ships, the majority are named in accordance with the two previously named theories. It is not a simple process to change the name of a previously named vessel. A complex ceremony must be followed to assure that no bad luck befalls the ship. It is often easier to leave the ship's name alone than it is to risk the bad tidings that might arise from the name change.
Choosing a proper name for a vessel must be done with careful consideration. Selecting a name that is significant to the owner and captain of the ship will motivate him to love and cherish his ship just as he would her namesake, making her maintenance and upkeep a top priority. Although ships are often named after important female figures, actual women at sea are considered a hazard. A woman on a ship has historically spelled certain doom for the ship and her crew, and even today women on working sea vessels are few and far between.
Note: Thanks to Ellie Anna for putting together this interesting article. Remember, however, there are many other theories as well as to how the practice of naming one's boat after a woman began. We welcome you to post your theories, too!