How boats get their names (and why you shouldn’t change them)

A boat and its name: an unbreakable bond stemming from myth and legend

23 May 2024 | by Redazione

Oftentimes when walking around in a marina, you may have noticed the names printed on the sides or stern of various vessels. Other times you might ask yourself who “Petra” or “Vittoria” were, or, in front of a name like “Scomessa Vincente [Winning Bet]”, whether or not someone had actually won enough money gambling to afford a boat. Or you might ask yourself whether “Vagabond” enjoyed sailing alone, if “Mezzo [Vessel]” and “L’altro mezzo [The Other Vessel]”, moored side by side, belong to two best friends, or more simply, how on earth somebody came up with the name “Tacco 12 [12-inch Heel]”

As diverse as those many names and their sources can be, they do have one thing in common: every boat has one. Although there are clear rules on naming vessels – it is mandatory to register a name for all pleasure boats (over 10 metres) – practically every vessel, no matter its size, has a name.

There are many reasons for this: from a practical point of view, it is essential to be able to clearly identify a vessel for the marine authorities, for paperwork, and other reasons, like booking a mooring place, docking assistance, and in emergency situations. Names need to have certain characteristics, beyond personal preference: it is best if they are short, recognisable, easy to read, and easy to pronounce. In the case in which time is of the essence, it is much easier to launch an SOS from “Aurora” rather than a complex acronym made up of the names of your entire family.

Common sense aside, when buying a boat choosing its name is a very exciting time because it inevitably reflects something of the owner and, in one way or another, it shares something they love or care about. And this is where the topic becomes more romantic and interesting.


Whether you agree or not, it is a fact that most vessels have a female name. Although marine tradition and etiquette (those unwritten rules that all good sailors follow) state that all military units are considered “male”, while pleasure and merchant vessels are considered female, giving a female name to a boat is widespread and has very ancient origins.

Once sailors were forced to stay away from land for a very long time. Alone, surrounded by unending blue waters, they considered their vessels to be loved ones. Whether this was for good luck or simply tradition we do not know, but if we use a bit of basic psychology and try and step into the shoes of those sailors and their never-ending voyages, we can easily explain the reason: they believed that boats had a soul and that, by giving them a name, especially a female one, was a practical and reassuring way to have a sense of protection and (differently from real women, who were thought to bring bad luck if on board), the barely perceptible female aura associated with the vessel brought good luck and comfort.

There really is no need to go that far back in time to know that those who spend a lot of time at sea, be it for work or pleasure, for weeks or months, develop an intimate bond between with their vessel. Although those who don’t live this way struggle to understand, the boat plays a fundamental emotional role. From the moment we see her for the first time, we take care of her, we get attached and we trust her, and she, in turn, takes care of us when we are on board, protecting us from the waves, and getting us back to port safe and sound.

From that unspoken promise stems a connection is so strong that it is natural to want to give a name that best represents our feeling: it is a form of respect, a gift that we give, a way for sailors to give a sense of dignity. Giving a name perfects this “humanising” process that every sailor in the past and present feels the need to complete. But what happens when you buy a boat and it already has a name?


The name chosen for a vessel needs to create a connection with the owner who assigns it, as it “baptises” her and provides an identity. Like a spark igniting its soul, transforming it from a hand crafted item into an authentic creature of the seas. Acquiring a used vessel is almost like adopting it, and it usually already has a name. Changing this name, from a practical standpoint is simple: you just need to go to the Port Authority with your ID and boating licence and fill in the proper form. But are you really sure you want to take this risk?

Some of you may not know that a boat’s name, according to a superstition that is still present today, cannot and should not be changed. I’ll explain better: if you want to simply make a slight variation or addition to the original name, that’s okay, but if you want to completely change it with a new one, not only will that bring you bad luck but it will also enrage the pagan god of the sea. There are many legends fuelled by just as many superstitions that project us into a world of fascinating beliefs, the same ones that once terrified sailors and that are now beguiling, but still lead to us  fulfilling rituals aimed at warding off bad luck.

Boats are at the centre of many myths and legends that might make many people smile, but not those who live and work with the sea, who consider this very serious stuff indeed. Some of these myths are rooted in Ancient Greek legend and say that every vessel that hit the water for the first time received a soul and a name that became a part of it, written into a special book kept by Poseidon, god of the seas. He was the master of the sailor’s lives and the ships, and everything surrounding them was in his authority. Interfering meant offending him, and changing the name of the boat was an unpardonable offence.

This was also something that would not be pardoned by the beautiful figureheads – the wooden carvings that, between the XVI and XIX centuries were placed on the bow of vessels and were originally used on majestic galleons. Traditionally, these represented a female figure, the only woman allowed on board, and custodian of the ship’s name, According to legend, changing the ship’s name would have made the figurehead jealous, and, for revenge, she could cause the ship to sink.

Throughout history the (possibly) illusory need for protection made seafarers superstitious, and sailors looked to the oceans with caution, fear and reverence, following their beliefs in the hopes of attracting good luck and keeping disaster at bay. The intriguing legends that abound in our ports, although appearing bizarre to many, are still part of that unbreakable bond created in marine culture. These remind us that we are only guests on the water and that this magical water, a fundamental resource for our survival, requires humility and respect.

Before finishing, I want to say that if you really want to change the name of your vessel without provoking Poseidon’s wrath, all you need to do is go out to sea and cut through the wake of a friendly vessel a few times. Or, if you have more time, go off shore armed with a bottle of champagne and a plaque with the name you want to change, and call upon the god of the seas, with the appropriate ritual and solemnity, and say these words:

Oh great and powerful Lord of the Seas and Oceans, to whom all vessels and persons travelling over your vast dominion must pay homage, we beg you to erase the name (insert old ship name here), which is no longer a part of your kingdom (throw the plaque into the water off the bow). We invoke your clemency in accepting in your registry this precious ship, from now on known as (insert new name), protecting it with your powers and your trident and ensuring safe and fast travels across your vast realm. In appreciation of your dispensation, munificence and in honour of your greatness, we offer you this libation.”

Don’t be stingy, and pour the entire contents of the bottle into the water. If you want to save a drop, use it to drink a toast to the ship’s new name.


Priscilla Baldesi



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