Ask the Chief: Ceremonies in the life of a naval ship, Part 1

Image (Christening), DD-462, FITCH, from US Naval History and Heritage Command

There are four traditional ceremonies in the life of a naval ship: the keel-laying, christening and launching, commissioning, and the decommissioning. The keel-laying ceremony is relatively simple, with formal invitations made to interested parties for the “laying of the keel of Name or designator and hull number (e.g. DD-123), if not yet named. Notably, prior to commissioning, “USS” is not used in conjunction with the ship name. At the shipyard, after invocation, an official such as the shipyard president welcomes guests and introduces a guest speaker. After remarks, the speaker may direct or affix a nameplate or weld his or her initials on the keel. Finally, the keel is moved into position by shipyard workers, and it is announced that “the keel has been truly and fairly laid.”

When a ship is christened today, the event continues the long history in maritime cultures of ceremony. Originally a dedication to maritime deities, the ancient Greeks and Romans, Chinese and Polynesian cultures used water or wine or blood (Polynesia) in the ceremony honoring the gods. In France, sea-going vessels were blessed by Catholic priests; wine was not splashed against the ship but was reserved for the guests! Beginning in the early Nineteenth Century Europe and America, with Queen Victoria in Britain, naval ships’ sponsors increasingly became women. US Navy ships were initially christened with water though wine or champagne has christened ships for almost two hundred years except for the period of Prohibition in the United States. Interestingly, Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, Sixth Edition, (Naval Institute Press) recalls a story where USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) failed to launch when water was used, twice. It only slipped down into the Boston harbor when a bottle of choice Madeira wine was splashed against it. The ceremony itself is a dedication and named, involving speakers who will relate historical or other association with the person, place or event for which the ship is named. The sponsor is introduced and then the actual christening occurs. And again, until the ship is in commission, “USS” is not associated with its name.


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