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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


A Bird's Eye View of Boat Names

© 1990/2011 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


Jaques: I do not like her name.
Orlando: There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.

                                                                                       - Shakespeare - As You Like It


One phenomenon peculiar to boats and ships, which we tend to take for granted, reveals much about mariners. That is the universal custom we have of naming our watercraft.

Egyptians were naming their Nile River boats before they built the pyramids, and the tradition flourished ever since. Some names have etched themselves indelibly into the annals of human history. Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta are probably the most familiar boat names in America. One of the earlier sailboats to cruise the Med, Argo, is still remembered for helping Jason bring home the Golden Fleece. Bounty, Titanic, Spray, Calypso, each through its own good or bad fortune has earned its place in maritime folklore.

Just why we name our yachts today is hard to say. Of course, there's the tradition; everyone else does it. And there's the Marine Patrol. They usually insist on something being written on the registration, even if it's "No Name.” But mostly I suspect we do it because it's fun. We like to infuse our proud vessels with their own distinct personalities, often reflections of our own. It's a form of self-expression, like the message on a T-shirt or a vanity license plate on a car, only bigger. A boat's name may provide some of insight into the personality and the real or wishful self-image of the person doing the naming.

Whatever our reasons for naming boats, name them we do. There are funny names and cute ones, bold and audacious names and humble ones, too. Noble, proud, joyful, serious, functional, egotistical, ideological, meaningful, and meaningless; historical, original, and just plain tacky. The sheer numbers of boats and ships, even with the inevitable duplication of names, suggests the staggering number of appellations currently in use around the world. Multiply that by the number of different languages and, well, there must be millions!

As inventive as the names themselves are the superstitions we attach to them. Barely a century ago, Old World sailors feared it was bad luck to sail aboard a ship with a six-letter name, but if the name had seven letters the ship was lucky. Even today a lot of people that buy a pre-owned boat are reluctant to change the vessel's name because it's "bad luck." Those fortunate enough to launch a brand new boat, who's original name they have chosen, do so with an elaborate "christening" ceremony. This unlikely ritual requires a bottle of champagne to be broken across the bow, usually by a woman, who pronounces "I hereby christen thee ‘so-and-so’", thus somehow ensuring good fortune to the boat and lending the name an almost divine significance.

Have you ever looked at a beautiful yacht and then been sorely disappointed when you read the name on the transom? Sometimes we can't help thinking we could have come up with something much more appropriate had it been up to us. Ah, but that’s often easier thought than done. How do you come up with a truly outstanding original name for your boat, one that expresses everything she means to you, when all the really great ones seem to be taken?

Well, there are actually lots of places to look for a boat name. Books, for example, both fiction and non-fiction, from which you can pick a favorite character (like Peter Pan or Crazy Horse). In fact, the name of any favorite person is a candidate - Vivaldi, Rocky, or your sweet Aunt Sara. Another place to seek a boat name is in your ethnic heritage; La Bamba, L'chaim, Leprechaun, Lagniappe. Flip through a dictionary or a thesaurus for ideas. Try military names; Legionnaire, Trooper, or Scout. Movies (take your pick!). Songs, stars, animals, weather, colors - all are sources for interesting and creative boat names.

Other possible sources (and examples) for boat names are:

Mythology (Pegasus)

Astronomy (Arcturus)

Television (Cheers!)

Geography (Pride of Newport)

Biology (Blue Eyes)

CB Radio (Big Mama)

Liquor (Tia Maria)

Other Languages (Ma Chere)

Astrology (Scorpio)

Religion (Shaolin)

Nursery rhymes (Rockabye Baby)

Sports (Home Run)

Native American (Cochise)

Brand Names (Liquid Joy)

 Flowers (Yellow Rose)

 Electronic (Wavelength)

A few other categories or feelings to consider are:

Utopian (Endless Wave)

Celestial (Moonbow)

Sparkling (Bubbles)

Mischievous (Incorrigible)

Romantic (Sweetheart)

Patriotic (Old Glory)

Noble (Valiant)

Boring (_____'s Dream)

Books that might be useful in searching for a boat name include The New Age Baby Name Book (Sue Browder, Workman Publishing Company), Let's Name It: 10,000 Boat Names (Corcoran & Hackler, Seascape Enterprises), and How To Name Your Boat (Michael Deer, Western Marine Enterprises). All include pages of name suggestions, one of which might strike your fancy. Or you could just Google “boat names” and start surfing the web.

Naming the dinghy, the ship's tender, can invite even more creativity than naming the boat. Some of the best dinks bear names that compliment the mothership's. A boat named Thunder would naturally tow a dinghy named Lightnin' (or Rumble or Thor). Pelican's tender might be Bill. How about Meringue and Foxtrot? Spring Fever and Summertime Blues? Windward and Backward! Dinghy names are sometimes more fun simply because we don't tend to take them so seriously.

As a practical guideline, an easily recognizable, English language boat name will be more readily understood when spoken over the radio in home waters, whereas an obscure or foreign language appellation must often be repeated and spelled out. One fellow named his liveaboard sailboat “Waipipi,” which means “house on the water” in Polynesian. It’s a noble enough sentiment, but every time he says it over the VHF people think he’s joking… or ask, “Why not?”

There is only one certainty when it comes to naming a boat. Most other people won't really like the name you pick. They'll all have "better" ideas. Of course, their ideas won't really be better, just different; as different as people's personalities, lifestyles, backgrounds and values are from each other. In the end, the ultimate criterion for your boat's name is that you like it. As the song said, "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." (Ricky Nelson, Garden Party)

~ End ~

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