Pomp & Circumstance: Ship Naming Ceremonies in Britain Carry Weight

Pomp & Circumstance: Ship Naming Ceremonies in Britain Carry Weight

By David Eisen

I've been to a few ship-naming ceremonies now, enough where I'm confident I know what's going to happen—or so I thought.

The naming of Cunard Line's newest ocean liner, Queen Victoria in Southampton, England, blew away all notions I held previously. Let's just say Americans do some things better than the British?ship christenings not being one of them.

First and foremost, when Cunard launches a new ship, British royalty preside over the ceremony. Britain has a great naval history and shipping tradition carries over into the cruise industry, ever since Cunard launched its first trans-Atlantic passenger service back in 1840 with the RMS Britannia.

For Queen Victoria, Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall, a.k.a the wife of Prince Charles, was charged with the task of naming the ship. Many, mostly British, were a bit puzzled by the choice. Queen Victoria became the first Queen ship not to be named by a monarch, in a tradition that stretches back to Queen Mary, wife of King George V, who launched Queen Mary in 1934. Not only did The Queen, Elizabeth II, name QE2 in 1967, she, as Princess Elizabeth in 1947, performed the function for RMS Caronia.

Not this time and, maybe, someone or "something" was taking note. When it was time to christen the ship with the traditional smashing of the champagne bottle, Camilla and Prince Charles, along with Micky Arison, chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp. and Queen Victoria Captain, Paul Wright, took to the theatre stage (the makeshift theater, which was built shoreside, was rigged such that the curtain, when raised, revealed the bow of Queen Victoria through a transparent screen). Everything went as planned until the bottle met the nose of the ship. Sadly, but not uncommonly, the bottle crashed into the ship's bow, but did not break. Luckily, a second reserve bottle was released that did.

The outcome became fodder for the British press who were sprinkled among the crowd of 2,000 strong. Many took to calling it the 'Curse of Camilla.' Next morning's London Daily Mail read: 'Duchess breaks a tradition, but not the bottle.'

Compared to other naming ceremonies I have been to, which play out more as routine exercises, the naming of a Cunard Queen is a spectacle of eye-popping pageantry. First off: the headgear. Similar to what you'd expect to find at the Kentucky Derby, many women topped their heads with oversized hats, some with feathers in them, others with taut bows. Whichever way, it gave the ceremony an added touch of appeal.

The stars were also out. Sir Derek Jacobi—whom Americans would recognize as the title character in public television's "I, Claudius" and more recently as one of the senators in "Gladiator"—performed a one-man play detailing the history of Cunard. The London Philharmonic provided background music. Undoubtedly, the ship was the true star of the show and was lit in varying colors and design schemes throughout the festivities.

Also on hand were three of today's most celebrated tenors, Alfie Boe, Jon Christos and Gardar Thor Cortes. The three combined on some well-known holiday tunes, but it was their rendition of "Rule Britannia" that really riveted of the crowd—most waving British flags to the chorus. The ceremony was truly a British event, evoking the heritage of the country along with its strong and proud tradition in cruising.

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