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All Posts, Transport

Author Guest Post: George Hodgkinson

Unusual Ship Launches and Ship Naming Ceremonies

Imagine you have just completed the construction of a ship and she is nearly ready to launch when you learn that the intended sponsor is unable to be present at the launch but will be 12,000 miles away in Brisbane. Most shipbuilders would gently suggest to the owner that it would perhaps be best to find an alternative sponsor who will be more readily available. This was the situation in 1934 in the case of the launch of RMS Orion under construction at Barrow in Furness. The intended sponsor, however, was a member of the royal family, HRH Duke of Gloucester, who was in Brisbane to attend a concert given by the Returned Sailors and Soldiers and ex-Servicemen Welcome Committee .He wanted to extend his patronage to both these significant events. How was this to be achieved? An ingenious solution was found: the ship would be launched by a wireless signal sent across the world from Australia initiated by His Royal Highness in Brisbane, so that he would be the sponsor of the ship even though not physically present at its launch in Barrow and could also be present at the concert in Brisbane. The launch ceremony in Barrow was broadcast so that the Duke of Gloucester on the other side of the world was able to hear the loud cheers at the shipyard as the ship entered the water and the National Anthem being played.

The whole ceremony was a technical masterpiece with elaborate arrangements made by the Post Office authorities in Australia and England, working to split seconds. In Barrow just before the event started preparations for the launch were advanced further that was usual with the shores and the blocks cleared away and the ship only held by the triggers. When His Royal Highness pressed a key in Brisbane town hall an electric impulse was carried by land line to the Telegraph office at Brisbane and then by telegraph line to Melbourne . From there it was picked up by Rugby Radio in England and was passed to Barrow where it was amplified to sufficient strength to trip both the release of the triggers holding the ship and the ceremonial bottle release mechanism.

Unusual, certainly; the Duke of Gloucester went further describing is as ‘an act of magic’. In today’s world of satellite communications and video links all this would have been child’s play but in 1934 it was innovative and a technical triumph.

Entirely different, but equally creative was the naming ceremony in 2008 for P and O’s new cruise ship Ventura.The background was the failure of the ceremonial bottles to break on two recent cruise ship naming ceremonies, which for superstitious sailors is a bad omen :at the naming ceremony of the Aurora where HRH Princess Royal was the godmother the bottle dropped off the lanyard without breaking and there had been a technical glitch at the naming of Cunard’s ship Queen Victoria by the Duchess of Cornwall where the bottle bounced off the bow and failed to break. P and O decided to take no chances when it came to the naming of Ventura. A squad of Royal Marines were recruited to assist the godmother the actress Dame Helen Mirren with the naming. After a short spoof 007 film to set the scene, on Helen’s command, the Marines abseiled down the side in James Bond style and smashed not one but two bottles of champagne against the side of the ship. Job done in true Royal Marine fashion! What a dramatic and unusual way to name a ship! Perhaps the old metaphor of taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut should be changed to refer to taking a squad of Marines to crack a champagne bottle!

Further examples of unusual ship launches and naming ceremonies are to be found in George Hodgkinson’s book ‘A History of Ship Launches and their Ceremonies’ recently published by Pen and Sword Books Limited. Other historical topics relating to ship launching are explored too , the origin of the now widely practised custom of inviting a lady to name a new ship, the origin of the religious service performed at the launch of Royal naval ships, the origin of the special service of dedication on the inauguration of a new lifeboat, the different ceremonies performed at the launch of ships in different countries reflecting local religion and traditions and the unique ceremony in Venice for naval ships built in the Arsenale where a huge copper ring was symbolically tied by a ribbon from the stern of a ship being launched so as to be the first part of the ship to touch the water of the Lagoon thereby recalling Venice’s historic marriage with the sea tradition; and there is much , much more….

Order your copy here.