Ceremonial ship launching


Ceremonial ship launching involves the performance of ceremonies associated with the process of transferring a vessel to the water. It is a nautical tradition in many cultures, dating back thousands of years, to accompany the physical process with ceremonies which have been observed as public celebration and a solemn blessing, usually but not always, in association with the launch itself. Ship launching imposes stresses on the ship not met during normal operation and, in addition to the size and weight of the vessel, represents a considerable engineering challenge as well as a public spectacle. The process also involves many traditions intended to invite good luck, such as by breaking a sacrificial bottle of over the as the ship is named aloud and launched.


There are three principal methods of conveying a new ship from building site to water, only two of which are called "launching". The oldest, most familiar, and most widely used is the end-on launch, in which the vessel slides down an inclined , usually first. With the side launch, the ship enters the water broadside. This method came into use in the 19th century on inland waters, rivers, and lakes, and was more widely adopted during World War II. The third method is , used for ships that are built in basins or s and then floated by admitting water into the dock. If launched in a restrictive waterway, drag chains are used to slow the ship speed to prevent it striking the opposite bank.


Normally, are arranged perpendicular to the shore line (or as nearly so as the water and maximum length of vessel allows) and the ship is built with its facing the water. Where the launch takes place into a narrow river, the building slips may be at a shallow angle rather than perpendicular, even though this requires a longer slipway when launching. Modern slipways take the form of a reinforced concrete mat of sufficient strength to support the vessel, with two "barricades" that extend well below the water level taking into account variations. The barricades support the two launch ways. The vessel is built upon temporary cribbing that is arranged to give access to the hull's outer bottom and to allow the launchways to be erected under the complete hull. When it is time to prepare for launching, a pair of standing ways is erected under the hull and out onto the barricades. The surface of the ways is greased. ( and were used as grease in sailing ship days.) A pair of sliding ways is placed on top, under the hull, and a launch cradle with bow and stern poppets is erected on these sliding ways. The weight of the hull is then transferred from the build cribbing onto the launch cradle. Provision is made to hold the vessel in place and then release it at the appropriate moment in the launching ceremony; common mechanisms include weak links designed to be cut at a signal and mechanical triggers controlled by a switch from the ceremonial platform. On launching, the vessel slides backwards down the slipway on the ways until it floats by itself.


Some slipways are built so that the vessel is side-on to the water and is launched sideways. This is done where the limitations of the water channel would not allow lengthwise launching, but occupies a much greater length of shore. ' designed by was built this way, as were many during . This method requires many more sets of ways to support the weight of the ship.


Sometimes ships are launched using a series of inflated tubes underneath the hull, which deflate to cause a downward slope into the water. This procedure has the advantages of requiring less permanent infrastructure, risk, and cost. The airbags provide support to the hull of the ship and aid its launching motion into the water, thus this method is arguably safer than other options such as sideways launching. These airbags are usually cylindrical in shape with hemispherical heads at both ends. The shipyard launched a tank barge with marine airbags on January 20, 1981, the first known use of marine airbags.



A ian narrative dating from the 3rd millennium BC describes the completion of a ship:
Openings to the water I stopped;
I searched for cracks and the wanting parts I fixed:
Three ''sari'' of bitumen I poured over the outside;
To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed.
Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans called on their gods to protect seamen. Favor was evoked from the monarch of the seas— in , in . Ship launching participants in ancient Greece wreathed their heads with olive branches, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new vessel as a symbol of blessing. Shrines were carried on board Greek and Roman ships, and this practice extended into the Middle Ages. The shrine was usually placed at the , an area which continues to have special ceremonial significance. Different peoples and cultures shaped the religious ceremonies surrounding a ship launching. s and customarily used wine and water as they called upon God to safeguard them at sea. Intercession of the saints and the blessing of the church were asked by Christians. Ship launchings in the were accompanied by prayers to , the sacrifice of sheep, and appropriate feasting. Chaplain Henry Teonge of Britain's left an interesting account of a warship launch, a "briganteen of 23 oars," by the in 1675:
Two fryers and an attendant went into the vessel, and kneeling down prayed halfe an houre, and layd their hands on every mast, and other places of the vessel, and sprinkled her all over with holy water. Then they came out and hoysted a pendent to signify she was a man of war; then at once thrust her into the water.

Early Modern Age

The liturgical aspects of ship christenings, or baptisms, continued in countries, while the seems to have put a stop to them for a time in Europe. By the 17th century, for example, English launchings were secular affairs. The christening party for the launch of the 64-gun ship of the line in 1610 included the and famed naval constructor , who was master shipwright at the Woolwich yard. Pett described the proceedings: The "standing cup" was a large cup fashioned of precious metal. When the ship began to slide down the ways, the presiding official took a ceremonial sip of wine from the cup, and poured the rest on the deck or over the bow. Usually the cup was thrown overboard and belonged to the lucky retriever. As navies grew larger and launchings more frequent, economy dictated that the costly cup be caught in a net for reuse at other launchings. Late in 17th century Britain, the standing-cup ceremony was replaced by the practice of breaking a bottle across the bow.

By country

Launching could be said to mark the birth of a vessel; and people throughout history have performed launching ceremonies, in part to appeal for good fortune and the safety of each new vessel.
''Seascope'' (NYK newsletter). No. 211, January 2005.


In Canada, will perform ceremonies at the launching of vessels along with other methods of launching.


French ship launchings and christenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries were accompanied by unique rites closely resembling marriage and baptismal ceremonies. A godfather for the new ship presented a godmother with a bouquet of flowers as both said the ship's name. No bottle was broken, but a priest pronounced the vessel's name and blessed it with holy water.


In , ships have historically been launched with a ceremony that dedicates the ship to a Hindu god or goddess, and seeks blessings for her and her sailors. Historically, priests would perform the ''puja'' ceremony at launch. In the 20th century, ships are launched with a lady breaking a on the bow of the vessel, which is sometimes followed by a small .


Japanese ship launchings incorporate silver axes which are thought to bring good luck and scare away evil. Japanese shipbuilders traditionally order the crafting of a special axe for each new vessel; and after the launching ceremony, they present the axe to the vessel's owner as a commemorative gift. The axe is used to cut the rope which tethers the ship to the place where she was built.

United Kingdom

s of British warships were customarily members of the royal family, senior naval officers, or Admiralty officials. A few civilians were invited to sponsor Royal Navy ships during the nineteenth century, and women became sponsors for the first time. In 1875, a religious element was returned to naval christenings by , wife of the , when she introduced an Anglican choral service in the launching ceremony for battleship . The usage continues with the singing of with its special meaning to mariners:
They that go down to the sea in ships;
That do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.
In 1969, named the ocean liner after herself, instead of the older liner , by saying, "I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second. May God bless her and all who sail in her." On 4 July 2014, the Queen named the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier with a bottle of from the Bowmore distillery on the island of instead of champagne because the ship had been built and launched in Scotland. The similarly launched by pulling a lever which smashed a bottle of single malt Scotch whisky at the side of the ship. Shipyard ephemera is a rich source of detail concerning a launch and this was often material produced for the audience of the day and then thrown away. has many of these items from Tyne and Wear shipyards. A number can be seen i
The 1900 piece for reproduced in this article lists a woman performing the launch.

United States

Ceremonial practices for christening and launching ships in the have their roots in Europe. Descriptions are not plentiful for launching naval vessels, but a local newspaper detailed the launch of Continental frigate at , in May 1776: It was customary for the builders to celebrate a ship launching. authorities were charged with overseeing construction of frigates and . They voted the sum of fifty dollars to the master builder of each yard "to be expended in providing an entertainment for the carpenters that worked on the ships." Five pounds was spent for lime juice for the launching festivities of frigate at , , suggesting that the "entertainment" included a potent punch with lime juice as an ingredient. No mention has come to light of christening a Continental Navy ship during the American Revolution. The first ships of the Continental Navy were , , , and . These were former merchantmen, and their names were assigned during conversion and outfitting. Later, authorized the construction of thirteen frigates, and no names were assigned until after four had launched. The first description that we have of an American warship christening is that of at Boston, October 21, 1797, famous as "Old Ironsides." Her sponsor was Captain James Sever, USN, who stood on the weather deck at the bow. "At fifteen minutes after twelve she commenced a movement into the water with such steadiness, majesty and exactness as to fill every heart with sensations of joy and delight." As ''Constitution'' ran out, Captain Sever broke a bottle of fine old over the heel of the . Frigate had an interesting launching on April 10, 1800, at New York: As the 19th century progressed, American ship launchings continued to be festive occasions, but with no set ritual except that the sponsor(s) used some "christening fluid" as the ship received her name. Sloop of war ''Concord'' was launched in 1827 and was "christened by a young lady of Portsmouth." This is the first known instance of a woman sponsoring a United States Navy vessel. Unfortunately, the contemporaneous account does not name her. The first ''identified'' woman sponsor was Lavinia Fanning Watson, daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. She broke a bottle of wine and water over the bow of at on August 22, 1846. Women as sponsors became increasingly the rule, but not universally so. As sloop-of-war "glided along the inclined plane" in 1846, "two young sailors, one stationed at each side of her head, anointed her with bottles, and named her as she left her cradle for the deep." As late as 1898, the torpedo boat was christened by the son of the builder. Wine is the traditional christening fluid, although numerous other liquids have been used. and were sent on their way in 1843 with . Seven years later, "a bottle of best was broken over the bow of steam sloop ." Steam frigate earned her place in naval history as ironclad , and she was baptized with water from the . Admiral 's famous steam sloop was christened by three sponsors; two young ladies broke bottles of water and spring water, while a naval lieutenant completed the ceremony with a bottle of sea water. came into popular use as a christening fluid as the 19th century closed. A granddaughter of wet the bow of , the Navy's first steel battleship, with champagne at the on November 18, 1890. The effects of national on alcoholic beverages were reflected to some extent in ship christenings. s and , for example, were christened with water; the with cider. However, battleship appropriately received her name with California wine in 1919. Champagne returned in 1922, but only for the launch of light cruiser . Rigid naval s , , , and were built during the 1920s and early 1930s, carried on the , and each was formally . The earliest to act as sponsor was who christened the airship ''Los Angeles''. christened ''Akron'' in 1931, but the customary bottle was not used. Instead, the First Lady pulled a cord which opened a hatch in the airship's towering nose to release a flock of pigeons. Thousands of ships of every description came off the ways during , the concerted effort of a mobilized American industry. The historic christening and launching ceremonies continued, but travel restrictions, other wartime considerations, and sheer numbers dictated that such occasions be less elaborate than those in the years before the war.''(This article includes material from "Ships of the United States Navy: Christening, Launching and Commissioning, Second Edition," which was prepared for and published by the of the , , 1975, and therefore is in the public domain as federal government work).'' On 15 December 1941, the announced that all formal launching ceremonies would be discontinued for merchant ships being constructed under its authority, though simple informal ceremonies could continue without reimbursement to builders. In recent history, all U.S. Navy sponsors have been female. In addition to the ceremonial breaking of a champagne bottle on the bow, the sponsor remains in contact with the ship's crew and is involved in special events such as homecomings. The sponsor will also receive a token of the launching. The bottle is wrapped in a yarn before it is used in the ceremony, and this is mounted on a plaque (''see image'') which is given to them afterwards.


* sank moments after her launching at a in , , on 3 July 1883. As ''Daphne'' moved into the river, the anchors failed to stop the ship's forward progress. The anchor moved only , but the port anchor was dragged . The current of the river caught ''Daphne'' and flipped it onto its side, sinking it in deep water. 124 died including many young boys, some of whose relatives watched the ceremony from shore. * launched on 21 June 1898. ''Albion'' created a wave with her entry into the water after the christened her. The wave caused a stage to collapse on which 200 people were watching; it slid into a side creek, and 34 people drowned, mostly women and children.Burt, p. 159 This was probably one of the first-ever ship launchings to be filmed. * In 1907, the Italian ocean liner capsized and sank upon launch. * In 2001, shipyard sank a cargo ship at launch.

See also

* * * * * * * *


Further reading

* ''The symbolism of ship launching in the Royal Navy'' (1983) (PhD thesis)

External links

Photos of the 8 Dec 1984 launching ceremony of the USS ''Samuel B. Roberts'' (FFsG 58)

An online exhibit of ship launching ceremonies from the first half of the 20th Century

Short video of ships being launched sideways
{{DEFAULTSORT:Ship Naming And Launching
Ship launching Ceremonial ship launching is the process of transferring a vessel to the water. It is a naval tradition in many cultures, dating back thousands of years. It has been observed as a public celebration and a solemn blessing. Ship launching impos ...