When Queen Elizabeth II launched her namesake, the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, last year, she smashed a bottle of whisky against the ship’s side. This caused considerable interest in the British media at the time. Why had more traditional French Champagne not been used? Was this yet another example of unfolding Brexit? It was even revealed that most modern ships were not launched with a bottle of champagne anyway. Apparently Spanish Cava produces a much more satisfactory splash of bubbles on impact. All of which raises the more interesting question - why do we launch a ship by smashing a bottle against it in the first place?
From ancient times, launching a ship has always been accompanied with a lot of ceremony. In Babylon, no vessel could take to the waters without the sacrifice of an oxen, to appease their sea god. The Vikings, as you might expect, took this a step further. A new long ship would be dragged over the body of a human slave, crushing the poor unfortunate, and smearing the hull with his gore. They believed that the Norse sea gods would demand a life in exchange for sparing the ship. Even the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia only resulted in the replacement of a human with a live goat.
The Romans saw a parallel between the launch of a ship, and the birth of a child. They would name the ship at the time of its launch, and used the splashing of wine and holy water in a ceremony akin to the baptism of infants as they entered the world. Like much of Roman tradition, this one was adopted by the succeeding European powers, and this ritual passed on into the west long after the Roman Empire had crumbled away. Wine was to remain a key part of the launch of ships in medieval times. In England a representative of the King would splash it around the deck and hull from a silver chalice to bless the vessel, before throwing the goblet over the side and into the water. It is interesting to note that even in Christian Europe, there was still seen to be a need to give some form of sacrifice to the sea.
By the 18th century, two fresh innovations emerged. The first was that the ceremony should be carried out by a woman, and the tradition continues to this day. The second followed the invention of bottling for wine, which combined with the cost of silver and the increased frequency of ship launches, led to wine in a bottle being sacrificed in place of wine in a goblet. At first the bottle was broken against the bows by being hurled overarm. This practice stopped following an unfortunate incident during the Revolutionary wars when the lady launching the ship missed the hull altogether and struck a spectator, causing severe injury to the unfortunate man. To avoid a repetition, the Admiralty ordered that a cord should be attached to the bottle, producing the ceremony we see today. The replacement of wine with champagne came much later. Queen Victoria used it for the first time in 1891 to launch the Royal Arthur.
Around the world, the ceremony may vary, but the idea of sacrificing something remains. In the US the ceremony follows closely the British model, although during prohibition water is said to have been used instead of champagne. In the Ottoman navy, a sheep was sacrificed at the launch of a ship. In India a coconut was broken on the hull. Sailors across time and across the world have always been a superstitious breed, which is understandable given the obvious hazards of their calling. The sea gods must be indulged, whether with the blood of an ox, or a bottle of single malt whiskey.