Why is it bad luck to change the name of a ship?

By: Debra Ronca  | 
A blue and red ship moves through the water.
Think deeply about your ship's name, you could be putting your life at risk by changing it after the fact.
Stewart Sutton/Thinkstock

There are so many superstitions related to water, boating and ships in general. One of the most well-known ones relates to the naming of a vessel. But why is it bad luck to rename a boat?

Superstitions abound in all cultures, but you probably won't encounter a more superstitious group of people than sailors. Why is this? Most psychologists believe that superstitions evolve from feeling a lack of control. Writer and psychology professor Stuart Vyse states that, "When something important is at stake yet the outcome is uncertain, then superstitions are likely to be used to fill the gap and make us feel more confident" [source: Lallanilla].


Because so much about taking a boat or ship out on the water relies on things beyond our control — the weather, the state of the ocean, the mechanics of the vessel — sailors have a lot to worry about. It makes sense, then, that so many superstitions revolve around sailing, boating and fishing.

Common Superstitious Beliefs

Just a few examples of these long-held beliefs include:

  • Whistling on a boat is bad luck.
  • Bringing bananas on a boat is bad luck.
  • Never sail on a Thursday or Friday.
  • If you see a redhead before boarding a ship, it's bad luck.
  • Dolphins swimming alongside a ship are good luck.
  • Changing the name of a ship or boat is very bad luck.
  • Not naming a boat at all is bad luck.


Why Is Renaming a Boat Bad Luck?

Why is it bad luck to rename a boat? Vessels change hands all the time, and what was a perfect name for one owner can't possibly be the perfect name for you. Many boaters and sailors, though, insist renaming a boat brings bad luck. If you must change it, you should perform a Christening ceremony or renaming ceremony first to ensure good fortune.

This superstition goes back a long time, and is even mentioned in the classic novel "Treasure Island," in which Long John Silver says, "What a ship was christened, so let her stay." Tales abound of captains renaming their ships in a moment of hubris, only to be met with a tragic watery end. Legend says that when every ship is christened, its name goes into a "Ledger of the Deep" maintained by Neptune (or Poseidon) himself. Renaming a ship or boat means you're trying to slip something past the gods and you will be punished for your deviousness.


Another, more practical, explanation is that back in the day when most boats were used to transport cargo, each vessel had its own reputation, good or bad, in ports of call all over the world. A sudden name change would render a boat, and therefore its reputation, unrecognizable and likely cause many problems for the captain and crew [source: Hurricane Boats].

Whether or not you're superstitious, if you decide to change the name of your boat, fellow sailors consider it good form to perform a perform a purging ceremony and re-naming ritual. A boat re-naming ceremony makes the sea gods aware that you're re-naming your boat, showing them you have no underhanded motives.


Ceremonies For Renaming a Boat

There are many different ceremonies for re-naming your boat — you can look them up online or ask your local boating community which they prefer. Typically, though, you must first remove all traces of the old name. This means removing the name from the hull, burning the old log books and paperwork, and requesting that the gods to forget the old name. Then, you re-christen the boat with alcohol, normally good champagne. First offer half to the water, from east to west, and then some to the boat, and some then some for you and your first mate to toast the new vessel. Another, less desirable, option is to have a virgin urinate over the bow [source: Eyers].

In the new naming ceremony, sailors are to address Poseidon, god of the sea, who supposedly holds the name of every vessel ever launched recorded in the Ledger of the Deep. In this ceremony, ask for safe passage, fair winds and calm seas for your future voyages. One common script goes like this [source: United States Vessel]:


Oh mighty and great ruler of the seas and oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, I implore you in your graciousness to take unto your records and recollection this worthy vessel hereafter and for all time known as “(vessel's new name)”, guarding her with your mighty arm and trident and ensuring her of safe and rapid passage throughout her journeys within your realm. In appreciation of your munificence, dispensation, and in honor of your greatness, we offer these libations to your majesty and your court.”

You are also to address the mighty powers of the four wind gods - the great Boreas, Zephyrus, Eurus, and Notus - pouring champagne out as you face each of them: north wind, west wind, east wind, and then south wind.

"Oh mighty rulers of the winds, through whose power our frail vessels traverse the wild and faceless deep, we implore you to grant this worthy vessel (vessel's new name) the benefits and pleasures of your bounty, ensuring us of your gentle ministration according to our needs."

There's a lot that goes into renaming a boat if you want to ensure good luck and avoid ending up at the bottom of the ocean, according to the superstition and lore of the boating world. Better to be safe than sorry, in our opinion.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BoaterExam.com. "Very Superstitious: 13 Sailor Superstitions." July 15, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.boaterexam.com/blog/2011/07/boater-superstitions.aspx
  • Eyers, Jonathan. "Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions." Adlard Coles Nautical. 2011. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.jonathaneyers.com/nautical_sailing_superstitions.html
  • Lallanilla, Marc. "Friday the 13th: Why Humans Are So Superstitious." Live Science. Sept. 13, 2013. (Dec. 15, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/39566-friday-the-13th-superstitions.html
  • United States Vessel. "Boat Renaming Ceremony Script." Vessel Document Management System. No date. (Aug. 17, 2023). https://unitedstatesvessel.us/boat-renaming-ceremony-script/