How long has humankind been celebrating the launch of new ships? Oh, since about the third millennium, B.C. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Vikings, and Ottomans all launched their ships with feasts, blessings from the gods, and — yep — the occasional animal sacrifice.
Today’s biggest cruise ships are still launched with much hoopla — although, these days, they generally forgo the bloodshed. We recently attended the launch of Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, the Escape, in Miami. Here’s how the events of that ceremony (and other modern ship launches) are drawn from ancient tradition.
The history: A new ship is more than just a shiny way to get from place to place. It’s a vessel with human cargo that’s at the mercy of the sea — an unpredictable and sometimes deadly force. Before high-tech meteorology and GPS, a well-built ship could act as protection from unpredictable and rough seas. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a long history of inviting clergy to a ship launch to offer blessings and ask for divine protection of the ship and its passengers.
The modern take: The Escape launch in Miami indeed included blessings from local clergy — a priest and a rabbi, in this case. In accordance with tradition, their words still focus on protection for the ship’s passengers, even on a ship that’s among the most technologically advanced passenger vessels at sea.
The history: In Babylon, it was an ox. In the Ottoman Empire, it was a sheep. Jews and Christians of yore poured wine over the ship’s hull in sacrifice, and the Vikings are thought to have blessed their ships with the blood of humans.
The modern take: The idea of blessings at the hull of the ship has lived on, but in a gentler context. Today, murder, animals, and blood metaphors have been replaced by a far more festive bottle of champagne that’s usually broken as the ship’s sponsor proclaims the ship’s name. One ominous footnote, though: If the bottle doesn’t break, it’s considered bad luck. On the Escape, the christening was the final and most eagerly awaited moment of the inaugural ceremony. But rather than swinging it himself, the ship’s godfather — Miami-based musician and entrepreneur Pitbull — pressed a button that released a bottle of Voli vodka against the ship’s massive hull. (Yes, it broke.)
The history: A celebration has always been a prerequisite for launching a new ship. When the U.S.S. Maine was christened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1890, 15,000 people showed up to watch, and flowers and streamers festooned the ship. Dinner and dances were planned across the city of Boston for the launch of the U.S.S. Constitution in 1797. And, naturally, a VIP-filled guest list is a must. Japanese Emperors, English Queens, and American presidents have all attended ship launch ceremonies.
The modern take: For the Escape launch, the party was provided by the ship’s entertainers. Actors from “Million Dollar Quartet” and “After Midnight,” the two Broadway-style shows onboard, performed numbers from their respective shows. But the scene-stealer was Pitbull himself, who performed a short, sweat-soaked set — Miami was a whopping 100 degrees — with his bevvy of dancers.
The history: A sponsor is a long-established tradition in ship christening. The idea is that he or she brings good luck to the ship — and imparts a bit of his or her own style or attitude to the vessel itself. It was only in 19th Century America, though, that that it became traditional for a woman to do the honors. Our modern concept of the ship “godmother” was likely created by Queen Elizabeth II, who christened the Cunard ship that bears her name in 1969.
The modern take: Lots of people were surprised that Norwegian went with a godfather for the Escape, rather than a more traditional godmother. He is not, however, the first man to sponsor a ship in Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet. Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye served as the godfather of Norwegian’s Pride of America in 2006. Plenty of other men have christened ships throughout history — and Pitbull is a fitting godfather, considering that the Escape will homeport in his hometown, Miami.