I was eyeballing the transom of my new (well, to me, anyway) boat, where a bunch of vinyl letters proclaimed Matinicus, hailing from Essex, Connecticut. The last part, for starters, needed adjusting, given that the boat and I were now comfortably ensconced in Jacksonville, Florida. But what about the first part, the name? Yeah, it was kinda cool, conjuring, as it did, the spirit of a little island off the coast of Maine inhabited mostly by commercial fishermen—people who, by all reports, are a little dismissive of law enforcement and just a tad independent.
But then again, here I was, as I said, smack dab in the midst of the Sunshine State. Did a New Englandy name, referencing a little Down East island, really make sense, or should I change it?
The question got me thinking about boat names in general. For example, why name a boat anyway? Yeah, sure, antiquity validates the tradition. It goes back eons, to a time well before Juliet wondered (thanks to Mr. Shakespeare), “What’s in a name?” But hey, do you typically name your car? Or your house? Or your refrigerator?
Here’s my take: Years (and folks, I do mean years) ago, when I was a kid, I built a skiff out of plywood that came from an old construction site, lumber from “out behind the barn,” an assortment of tenpenny nails, roofing tar (to fill cracks), and a can of white house paint, which unfortunately turned colors under the influence of the tar. Did I love this boat and spend endless summers on board, listening to her Sea King outboard purr? Yes indeedy. But did I name her? Nope. Why not?
I’d say for the same reason I never got around to naming the two progressively larger boats that followed—the waters of my youth were uniformly sublime. There were no rough seas ravaging the woodsy creeks and ponds. And no hurricanes. Everything was, for the most part, peaceful.
The first boat I actually named, on the other hand, had a tougher row to hoe—Long Island Sound, which can, as you may know, occasionally turn itself into a veritable melee, complete with stout seas and frosty zephyrs. I called that boat the Scrumpy Vixen, in part because I liked the sound of the name, in part because “vixen” was a term of endearment that I often used to address my young wife, and in part because scrumpy is a blue-collar alcoholic beverage with unpredictable ingredients, a pleasing concept for a guy whose life has always been a little blue-collarish and unpredictable.
But I had another, deeper reason, too. Let’s face it: Certain risks are inherent in big-water, or even medium-water, seafaring. So, doesn’t it make sense, then, that a seafarer would attempt to endow a seafaring conveyance, upon which his very life may depend, with a whiff of totemic power by giving her a name? Consider, for a moment, the names of just a few of the vessels I served aboard during my Merchant Marine career: Betty Wood, Glenwild, Point Liberty, Sarah Hays. When straits were dire, did such names inspire confidence? Affection? Even hope? Absolutely!
But back to the original question, an aspect of which I’m sure has nagged just about everyone who has ever purchased an older vessel and contemplated a name change. Is such a thing actually safe? I mean, from the standpoint of maintaining an amiable relationship with Poseiden, King Neptune, or whoever presides over fates and fortunes on the high seas?
Of course, many a salty soul will tell you, even today, that changing a boat’s name is bad, bad luck. I have no idea how, why, or when this belief got started. And what’s more, I have no interest in finding out. Shoot, I’ve changed the names of at least two vessels over the years and had no trouble at all. No lightning strikes. Only a few groundings. And no sinkings whatsoever. Knock on wood!
However, I’ve always stuck to one rule: During the changing process, I’ve made sure that my boat was hauled out and set firmly on the hard, the point being to keep the Sea Gods from knowing what I was up to.
So yeah, Betty Jane II is the new name of my new boat. It’s emblazoned in giant white letters and pays homage to both my wife and my old Grand Banks trawler, Betty Jane. Would Mr. Shakespeare have approved? Heck, I’m sure of it, given the old boy’s flair for the dramatic, and his appreciation for a good love story. ρ