cutty sark

How to Name a Ship

Basil Karatzas
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April 25, 2014

In 1936, Cunard White Star Line Limited’s chairman Sir Percy Bates was granted an audience with King George V to inquire about a sensitive matter, to get the king’s consent to name one of company’s ocean liner vessels under construction at the time after the king’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. Traditionally Cunard’s vessels had names ending in –ia, and at the time, the Cunard line was on the quest for a more nationalistic and majestic, shall we say, line of vessel naming. “Your Majesty,” Bates said respectfully, “the Cunard line is building the best, biggest, and speediest ship in the world, and requests your gracious permission to name her after the most illustrious and remarkable woman who was ever been Queen of England.”

The king, probably presuming a uxorious hyperbole in the proposition, replied, “My wife will be delighted,” and so, the vessel became known to history as Queen Mary instead of Victoria.1

queen mary ship
RMS Queen Mary, via David Jones/wikipedia

Ships have been huge undertakings from time immemorial in terms of physical dimensions and financial commitment, often disappearing on the horizon not to be seen or heard from again, if ever on occasion, until several months later.  While the shape of their hulls was determined by the science of naval architecture at the time, anthropomorphic markings (such as the ‘oculus’) or artifacts (such as figureheads on the prow) were to impose fear on the enemy, dispel bad luck or bring good luck, calm the elements of nature, and so on.

The naming of ships has often played a similar role through history and has imparted practical and commercial concerns through the times.

There is no formal procedure or nomenclature on vessel naming, but usually after the launching of the vessel on the slipway in the shipbuilder’s yard and the smashing of a champagne bottle on the bow by the vessel’s godmother (again, a superstitious act offering libation to the gods of the sea for favorable treatment of the vessel while plowing the waters), there is the naming (or christening) ceremony at which ceremony the vessel is named and her name is ceremoniously revealed from under garlands and banners; sometimes, the naming ceremony takes place just before the delivery of the vessel to her new owners.

Today, by IMO regulations, it is required that the name of the vessel is clearly printed on both the portside and starboard bow and the superstructure, while the name along with her IMO number and her homeport are clearly printed on the stern with lettering at least four inches in height.

According to the US Coast Guard:

“A name for the vessel composed of letters of the Latin alphabet or Arabic or Roman numerals and may not exceed 33 characters. The name may not be identical, actually or phonetically, to any word or words used to solicit assistance at sea; may not contain or be phonetically identical to obscene, indecent, or profane language, or to racial or ethnic epithets.”

On occasion vessels can have two names, one stated on the bareboat charter party and another actually printed on the hull – often trying to accommodate legal or financial considerations. Vessels upon their sale most often change name and the chimney is painted with the house colors and house flag of the new buyer, while the vessel on documents can be identified by the prefix ‘ex-‘ on her previous names, such as MT “Mediterranean”, ex-Exxon Valdez.

Sometimes, for older vessels or vessels intended for demolition, the new name can be a variation of the previous name, especially if buyers are to save on new lettering and documentation expenses; as such, a once beautiful tanker named MT “Glenross” became just MT “Ross” on her way to the scrap yard by just painting over partially over previous name; not much romance and aspiration in the naming, just surplus black paint (or primer) did the trick.

In terms of ship naming conventions and writing style, a ship’s name is always italicized.

Prefixes, hull or pennant numbers, and disambiguation are rendered in normal upright font. The definite article is not used with vessel names, and usually feminine pronouns (sometimes neutral as well) are utilized for ships. Common prefixes are MV (for Motor Vessel), MS (for Motor Ship), MT (Motor Tanker), SY (for Sailing Yacht) or MY (for Motor Yacht), while prefixes from older times were SS (for Steam Ship) and RMS (for Royal Mail Ship) or ever older HMS (for His/Her Majesty’s Ship). For a more thorough list of maritime abbreviations, please click here.

While the presence of women onboard ships bored on the superstition of bad luck, non military vessels traditionally have been given female (or neutral) names rather than male names. On occasion vessels were named after the shipowner’s wife, daughter or even paramour, mistress or female companion. There have been owners who went as far to name vessels after colloquial names of ‘working girls’ in port cities such as ‘Lulu’, ‘Fifi’, and ‘Zuzu’; vessels trading in the spot market (often called ‘tramp trade’ since the next cargo and voyage is unpredictable and completely dependent on what cargos and trades will be found at the next port call), just as a ‘working girl’s’ schedule in a port depends, well … depends on trade.

Vessels are named after flowers, whether national (“Chrysanthemum” or not, such as “Rose”), in English or in local languages (“Bunga Begonia” in Malay and Indonesian for “begonia flower’).

Vessels are named after “Love” or “Amor” or “Prem” (love in Hindi), while there are trading tankers at present named “Lovely Lady” and “Amoureux” (in love), while we should not forget a sitcom of the past taken place on cruiseship MS “Pacific Princess” (better known as “Love Boat”). Pleasure boats and yachts often bear more affectionate, inspirational or evocative names such as SY “Sea Joy” or MY “Eclipse” (Abramovich’es yacht) or “Octopus” (Paul Allen’s, Microsoft co-founder) or MY “Rising Sun” (Oracle’s Larry Ellison yacht) or SY “Maltese Falcon”.

Cruiseships often had alluring names such as “Oasis of the Seas” but now at the age of size and industrial scales are also named MS “Carnival Victory” and MS “Carnival Valor” just the way major industrial shipowners name their vessels with in two-words, with their funnel name accompanied by a second name such as MV “Maersk Alabama” or MV “MOL Japan” or MT “Front Cecilie”.

On occasion, ships are pointedly named, especially in times of war and conflict, while veins of nationalism can sometimes run through ship onomatopoeia as well. Japanese-owned vessels often contain the word ‘Maru’ as the last word in a vessel’s name, meaning ‘circle’ literally, but based on the notion that ships are floating castles, protected spaces or small worlds on their own; a rather astute connotation, actually! When the US claimed as prize of war the German-built Vaterland (‘Fatherland’), President Woodrow Wilson had her re-named Leviathan; when asked about the name, his reply was: “Why, that’s easy, Leviathan …It’s in the Bible, monster of the deep.2

In 1952, the ocean liner vessel SS United States was built in Newport News shipyard; the vessel was an engineering marvel of her time in terms of safety, speed, efficiency and luxury, and she was so named to make a point against traditional British dominance of the seas through superior naval architecture and navigational skill.

Sometimes shipowners used to recycle names of glorious, lucky or profitable ships, or maintain a line of naming through family generations;

During World War II, the dry bulk vessel “North King” survived seventeen crossings in convoys of the Atlantic Ocean and the Nazi U-boats, and even today the multi-generational house of A.G. Pappadakis & Co. has been naming vessels bearing the first name “North” such as “North Prince”, “North Empress” and “North Princess.3

In previous and more innocent times when communications were expensive and access to information not instant, ship names were more important for trading purposes as charterers and brokers who recalled their names were more inclined to contact the owners for more business.

In an interview several years ago in a shipping trade publication, Japanese shipowner Hachiro Kaifu, who was heading Far East Shipping & Trading, brought up such point as “charterers and brokers involved in shipping with Far East often remember our vessels because of their names, and consequently whenever they have a cargo we want, they recall our vessels more quickly than any other vessel,” and thus the unusually but memorably named fleet: MV “Never on Sunday”, MV “Louisiana Mama”, MV “Amor Amor”, MV “El Condor Pasa” and MV “ Shenandoah”.

An exaggerated depiction of the Syracusia, a large cargo and passenger transport ship of Ancient Greece and one of the largest of antiquity, via Wikipedia

Some famous names of ships include:

Syracusia, allegedly the largest commercial ship in (western) antiquity;

Argo, Jason’s ship going after the Golden Fleece,

Santa Maria (or fully La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción) as Columbus’ flagship on his first trip to Americas;

Mayflower, bringing the Pilgrims to the western world;

HMS Beagle, Darwin’s ship for his scientific travels and call to the Galapagos Islands;

Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s oceanography vessel;

HMS Victory, Nelson’s man-of-war flagship

cutty sark
Cutty Sark, via State Library of Victoria, Allan C. Green collection of glass negatives.

The clipper vessel Cutty Sark (‘short house skirt’) was famous for her sleek lines and fast times and iconic;

USS Constitution (‘Old Iron Sides’) in the US instrumental in the country’s war for independence;

SS Patrick Henry, was the first of about 2,200 ‘liberty ships’ built during the war effort in WWII;

Glückauf was the first oil tanker, with MT Exxon Valdez being a tanker of notoriety, and MT “Seawise Giant” (renamed “Happy Giant”, renamed “Jahre Viking”, renamed “Knock Navis”), was the largest tanker (and movable structure) ever built; as the litany of her names suggests, her size was not commensurate with luck or commercial success.

But if there is a vessel that rightfully holds the dubious crown of bad luck, and according to polls has been the most recognizable ship name ever, it is RMS “Titanic” that sank on her maiden voyage with great loss of life, some say as the result of a provocative name and claims of man taming nature and delivering the ‘unsinkable’ ship.

1The Cunard Story; Johnson, Howard; Whittest Books, 1987.                                                       [

2Home is the Sailor; Hartley, Herbert; Vulcan Press, 1955.

3 ??????? ??????????? ??? ???????????? ????????????; ???????? ????????? & ???????? ?????????; ????????? ????????????, 2007

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