Ship sponsors: There’s more to it than smashing bottles on the bow

Crowsnest - Summer 2017 / July 12, 2017

by John Knoll

If you have been following your navy news lately, you will know that we recently announced sponsors for the first two Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships: Sophie Grégoire Trudeau for Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Harry DeWolf, and Margaret Elizabeth Brooke for HMCS Margaret Brooke, the ship that bears her aunt’s name.

With these announcements comes the natural question: what exactly does a ship’s sponsor do?

Traditionally, sponsors are prominent women with a record of service to the community. They have a ceremonial role, but they are also encouraged to maintain a connection to the ship and its crew, and many do.

Sponsoring a ship is similar to being a godparent: the sponsor takes part in key ceremonial events in the ship’s early life. For example, at the keel laying – when assembly of the ship truly begins – the sponsor has the duty of declaring the keel “well and truly laid.”

Also like a godparent, at the ship’s christening – now known as the launching or naming ceremony – the sponsor will break a bottle of champagne across the ship’s bow, much like water is used in a human baptism, to seek a protective blessing on the ship and its crew.

Our current practices, like many things naval, are based on a long and storied history. At the heart of this is a set of customs that are practised over a long enough time to become traditions.

The idea of christening or baptising a ship goes back to ancient times, with the general idea of making some kind of sacrifice in an attempt to seek divine protection for the ship and crew. The Greeks did this by dousing new ships in wine and water. The Vikings took things a little further: they are said to have christened their ships with the blood of young men who were crushed under the keel of the ship as it was launched. Fiji Islanders and Samoans bathed their new canoes in the blood of their enemies.

Alright – that’s enough blood sacrifice. Eventually, wine became the symbolic stand-in for blood in naval ceremonies, as it had in religious rites more generally. And at some point wine gave way to champagne, the current beverage of choice in ship launching.

The toast was originally made with a silver chalice, used just once then thrown into the sea so it could not be used again to make a negative toast to the ship. It got expensive throwing out all those chalices, and somewhere around 1690 the glass bottle came into use.

Standard practice was for a prince or other male royal to smash the bottle on the bow, but that changed in 1811 when the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) invited a lady to do so, and the tradition of a female sponsor has continued until today. (That said, there is no firm requirement for a ship’s sponsor to be female.)

Worth noting: these ceremonies may no longer involve death, but they have been dangerous. A wayward bottle once hit a spectator who then sued the Admiralty. Since then, the bottle is generally secured to the ship by a lanyard or is held fast in some mechanical arm or other device.

So, while the details may have changed, the essential ceremonial elements remain. At modern ship naming ceremonies, the sponsor breaks a bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow (normally done mechanically now, by pushing a button), says the name of the ship, and asks for a blessing on the ship and its company.

Beyond these key early ceremonies, some sponsors stay connected to their ships. The length and quality of this relationship depends on the sponsor, but also very much on the ship’s commanding officer (CO).

A standard item on every incoming CO’s to-do list is to write to the ship’s sponsor to make an introduction and to seek opportunities to engage and involve the sponsor in the life of the ship. This could include namesake city or port visits, receptions, or other events.

Some of our sponsors have kept close ties to their ships and to the navy for decades after performing their initial ceremonial roles, and the CO who makes an effort to reach out may well find in their ship’s sponsor a valuable stakeholder and a loyal member of the larger navy family.

John Knoll is the Heritage Officer for the Royal Canadian Navy.

Sources:

What You Always Wanted To Know About Naval Tradition (But Were Afraid To Ask), Capt (N) (Ret.) R.G. Allen

Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy, Lt(N) Graeme Arbuckle, 1984

Customs of the Navy, LCdr A. D. Taylor, Cd., RCN, 1956, Revised 1961.