Today is the birthday of the most talked-about of last year’s cruise ship godmothers, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge. She was fittingly named as the Godmother of Princess Cruises’ newest vessel, Royal Princess, officially naming the vessel on June 13 in what was one of the most recent in a very long line of ceremonies.
Pretty much as long as there have been ships, there have been blessing ceremonies to send them on their way. Thousands of years ago, when things were certainly a lot more fire and brimstone, the purposes of these sometimes bloodthirsty ceremonies were to protect vessels from the wrath of the gods as well as to grant them good luck but today thought the tradition continues, it’s thankfully become a much more refined business. In our western culture especially, the ceremonial breaking of the champagne bottle on the ship’s bow has long been a vital and familiar element of any ship launch.
Before cruise ship godmothers there were…
Men. In the past, it was always men who held sway over proceedings, with everyone from the ship’s captain or member of royalty to a politician, priest or religious elder responsible for sending a vessel on its way. It These days, as you’re probably aware if you like to keep up with cruising affairs , it’s always a woman who’s responsible and cruise ship godmothers are now firmly part of maritime tradition. But why and when did the change take place?
Here come the girls
Long before the now established concept of cruise ship godmothers and indeed, long before cruise ships themselves, women were often involved in ceremonies in some way. The first instances of female involvement could date back to the times of countries’ aboriginal peoples, when it’s possible that women took part in ancient vessel launch ceremonies but we have to look at history which is a little more recent to find the beginnings of cruise ship godmothers.
In 18th century France, launchings and Christenings were somewhat like traditional marriage ceremonies, with both a male and female participant. Just as the ship was appointed a ‘godfather’ it was also appointed a ‘godmother’ and both would say the ship’s name as the man presented the woman with flowers. So, we have possibly our first historical mention of a godmother, but still no bottle of bubbly.
That is until, the 19th century in America, when the first identified woman ‘sponsor’ (we’ve still not progressed as far as godmother in the US yet!) was named – Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson, who was the daughter of one Philadelphia’s elite. We’re still not up to the sophistication of true champagne here, as Miss Watson was reported to have broken a bottle of water and wine over the bow of the ship in 1846. From then on, in America at least, women sponsors became increasingly more common, as did the use of christening fluid. Brandy and whiskey were both used but champagne didn’t come into real prominence until the end of the 19th century.
Perhaps the first true ‘godmother’ was Queen Elizabeth II, who christened Cunard’s iconic vessel which was named after her in 1969. It was the birth of the ocean liner which in turn gave birth to the age of cruising, so perhaps the inclusion of her majesty in the service set the president in the cruising world for cruise ship godmothers?
From royalty to screen stars – the development of cruise ship godmothers
Back in the days immediately following the launch of the QEII, there were still only a handful of passenger liners on the high seas, so there wasn’t the demand for godmothers there is today, when hundreds of cruise ships which regularly sail the oceans. By the time of the 1980’s, we’d started to see the first purpose-built mega cruise ships and the growing importance put on the leisure and entertainments when it came to ships facilities began to filter through into the choice of godmothers. In 1989, Screen legend Audrey Hepburn became the first big-name actress to christen a cruise ship, when she not only broke the bottle on the bow of the Star Princess but sailed on her for a 7-night Caribbean cruise as well. Of course, there’s still room for a little royal tradition in the modern cruising age, as I mentioned at the start of my blog and Princess Cruises recently brought the tradition full circle with the choice of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge to christen their newest vessel.
Some famous cruise ship godmothers
From the 1990’s until now, we’ve seen a wide range of godmothers, often drawn from the world of stage and screen. Here’s a look at some of the most notable ones.
Tinker Bell Disney Wonder (1999)
Two firsts here – the first fairy godmother and the first animated godmother too. Peter Pan’s famous friend was a natural choice when you consider the ship was a product of Disney Cruise Line and was introduced at the ceremony by Mickey Mouse and appeared courtesy of laser projection.
Chris Everet, MS Vollendam (1999)
A noticeable change of approach from Holland America, this, when they chose tennis great Chris Everet as godmother for their newest vessel back in 1999. The idea was to appeal to a younger active audience and indeed, when the bottle didn’t break at first attempt, the back-up was readied but true to form, Everet smashed the original to pieces on her second serve.
Sophia Loren MSC Lirica &Opera (2003 and 2004)
Italian cruise line MSC Cruises needed an Italian icon when it came to finding the perfect godmother. It found one in the form of screen siren Sophia Loren, who was godmother to two of its vessels in two consecutive years. 70 at the time, she still managed to turn every head at the ceremony.
Helen Mirren P&O Ventura (2008)
A quintessentially British cruise line demands a quintessentially British godmother and P&O Cruises certainly found one in the form of national treasure Helen Mirren. The christening ceremony she presided over was a little different however, with a group of Royal Marine Commandos abseiling down the side of the ship to break multiple bottles.
By Simon Brotherton