The sailing yacht Detroit slides down the ways of a Lake Michigan boatyard sometime in the 1920s. All the panoply of launch day—the flags, the crowd, the waiting spectator fleet—is designed to send the vessel on her way in style. Ship launching rituals go back through the mists of time. One early written reference dates to 3,000 B.C., with a Babylonian prayer preparing a boat for departure: “Openings to the water I stopped; I searched for cracks, and the wanting parts I fixed.” Sound familiar? The prayer even goes on to describe “painting” the bottom: “Bitumen I poured over the outside.”
For the ancients, the ocean was full of danger, and not just from wind and waves. Monsters, angry gods and goddesses seemed just as real to early mariners. Who could blame a shipowner for trying to bring good fortune to his vessel, crew and cargo? Ritual was the key. The ancient Greeks wreathed their heads with olive branches, drank wine and poured water on a new vessel as a blessing. Shrines were carried on board and revered on the quarterdeck. Later, Christians held similar ceremonies with saints called upon, rather than pagan gods. In one ceremony, a cup of wine was shared on the afterdeck, and the cup was thrown overboard as a token of good luck.
The British began breaking a bottle on the bow in the 18th century. At first, the bottle was thrown. Then, one member of royalty misfired and the glass hit a spectator. Subsequently, a cord was attached and the bottle was swung at the bow.
There also were superstitions to deal with. Bad luck days for ship launchings included the Monday in April when the biblical Cain slew his brother Abel; Thursday because it was Thor’s day, and he’s the Norse god of thunder and storms; and Friday because Jesus Christ was crucified then. These boaters had a lot to consider before leaving the dock.
Was anyone in the idyllic scene pictured here thinking about all of this? Not likely. But judging by the image, the ancient rituals were being observed.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.