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Baptism in bell is a nod to tradition

With a long history at sea and a great enthusiasm for all things nautical, it was natural for Cameron Morgan to have his first child baptized in a ship's bell.

Using the ship's bell as a baptismal font is an old naval tradition said to date back 200 years or so as a sign of good luck for the ship.

Baptizing their son in the ship's bell was a way for Cameron and Nicole Morgan to pass a love of the water on to Henry.

Morgan's own nautical abilities were evident in the physical setup for his son's baptism. Morgan made a knotwork sling to support the inverted bell from the ship's crane (normally used for lifting buoys). After his wife, Nicole, spoke briefly about the tradition, a priest poured water over the 3-month-old infant's head and back into the bell.

Morgan was initially enticed into the boating life by friends who were involved with schooners. He first learned the ropes volunteering on the Harvey Gamage. "You just want to get out, discover, travel, so I did exactly that," he says.

His first paid position was on the Margaret Todd, a 151-foot four-masted schooner out of Bar Harbor, Maine. He later volunteered aboard the Boston-based 125-foot fishing schooner Spirit of Massachusetts and the 91-foot two-masted schooner Quinnipiack of New Haven, Conn. He concluded his schooner career as first mate on the Malabar (formerly the Rachel and Ebenezer) out of Greenport, N.Y. "Sailing the tall ships gives you an appreciation for naval history," Morgan says.

Morgan joined the Coast Guard seven years ago and now serves on the 175-foot keeper class coastal buoy tender Abbie Burgess, out of Rockland, Maine.  He says he first heard of the practice of bell baptism while he was serving on the marine protector class cutter Adelie out of Port Angeles, Wash. All of his commanding officers have encouraged their crews to gain knowledge of maritime traditions.

Morgan owns a 1970 Pearson P26 sailboat and is a sea kayaker. Simply put, he loves the sea and he wants his son, Henry Tredegar Morgan, to love it as well. He and his wife, Nicole, had planned to use a bell baptism to connect their newborn to the sea.

The Abbie Burgess' commanding officer, chief warrant officer Thomas Svejcar, having spent the majority of his 30-year career aboard ships at sea, is enthusiastic about the traditions and had long hoped to have a bell baptism on his ship, according to Morgan.

The little-known practice of baptizing infants in ship bells continues to be used within the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the navies of Great Britain and Canada, according to Coast Guard historian William Thiesen. "Traditions of this sort are usually traced back to the Royal Navy," says Thiesen.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.