Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Among the travel agents going to Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld Nov. 9 to 11, the first 500 who sign up are getting quite a bonus: They will be invited to the naming ceremony for Royal Caribbean International's Harmony of the Seas on Nov. 10.

Namings are entertaining and fun, but they are a bit more meaningful when one takes into account the history of these ceremonies. The shipping industry is one of the world's oldest forms of commerce, and it's rich in traditions, rituals and even superstitions.

Since joining Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in 1988, chairman Richard Fain has presided over dozens of namings and has studied their history. He recently agreed to share some observations with me.

Naming ceremonies were once overtly religious, he said, incorporating animal sacrifices. But as religious practices evolved, so did ship namings. The similarities between a ship being named and slipped into the water (as used to occur simultaneously) and baptisms did not go unnoticed. Priests began to bless the ships with red wine, and the ceremonies came to be known as christenings.

As times changed, the priests were replaced by women -- godmothers, in fact -- and the red wine became bottles of Champagne smashed across the bows of ships already afloat.

One particular Royal naming stands out in Fain's mind for a couple of reasons. When the Sovereign of the Seas was being built, preparations were made to launch what would be, at the time, the largest cruise ship afloat. Market research was done to pick a suitable name, and they came up with one that "was very prosaic. Nice, safe and ordinary."

At the time, the board of directors was involved in choosing names, and board reaction to the name selected by researchers was lukewarm. But at a dinner at Oslo after the meeting, a board member came up to Fain and said, "I think I have the perfect name. We should call it the Sovereign of the Seas."

"It only took a blink to realize how good that sounded," Fain recalled.

When it came time to name its sister ships, the company wanted to link them to the Sovereign of the Seas. The Sovereign Majestic and Sovereign Monarch were considered, but "of the Seas" not only provided linkage to the Sovereign but was an appendage that would connect every future Royal ship to the line.

The degree to which ship's names are important to branding is also reflected in ship renaming. A vessel is typically renamed when it has been so thoroughly renovated that a line wants to suggest it might as well be new. And almost always, when a ship is sold, the sales agreement specifies that it must be renamed with a dissimilar name.

There are superstitions directly connected to ship namings.

"We were once naming a ship on a Tuesday the 13th," Fain recalled. "A Greek associate told me that was a very unlucky combination. Constantinople fell on a Tuesday in 1453; add up that year's numbers -- one, four, five and three -- and you get to 13. Almost 600 years later, the Greeks still find it disconcerting."

It is also inauspicious when a bottle of Champagne doesn't break when it strikes the hull, partly out of superstition but primarily because it's embarrassing.

The captain of the Nordic Empress wanted to take no chances with the Champagne bottle breaking during his naming ceremony, and tested and tested bottles of Champagne beforehand. Unfortunately, it was a hot day in Miami and all that testing stretched the line, so when it came time for the christening, the bottle hit the bow at the neck, the strongest part of the bottle. It didn't break.

Though Fain was glad godmother Gloria Estefan stepped up to entertain the crowd while the line was tightened, he recalls watching news stations loop the nonsmash over and over that night.

When the Sovereign was to be named, Taittinger offered to provide Champagne for all the guests and a bottle to break across the hull.

"We said great, but we needed a larger than normal size bottle because it was a larger than normal vessel," Fain recalled. "They said we could use a magnum [which holds as much as two bottles]. We said we need something larger. They offered a jeroboam, then a methuselah, then a salmanazar and a balthazar and even a nebuchadnezzar [holding the equivalent of 20 standard bottles]. Eventually, they designed for us the largest bottle of Champagne ever made and called it a 'sovereign.'"

It was so large that a steel bar was affixed to the hull to prevent it from creating a dent upon impact.

The last time Fain and I were together, I had asked him what animal statue would adorn the outer decks of the Ovation of the Seas, which at the time was destined to launch in China a few months later. He wouldn't say, but he gave me a hint. "It's a mammal."

"A panda?" I guessed.

It turned out I was correct, and perhaps he had that in mind when he refused to offer me a hint as to who the godmother of the Harmony of the Seas will be.

But in response to further questioning, he did make one concession: She is a mammal.

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