Why We Break A Bottle of Champagne Against New Ships

Emily Upton 1
This is an excerpt from our new book, The Wise Book of Whys, available in: Print | Kindle | Nook | Audiobook

champagne2While today breaking a bottle of champagne over the hull of a ship is considered tradition before launching a vessel in certain countries, particularly Britain and the United States, people have been performing ceremonies at launches seemingly as long as humans have made boats.

Like today, this was essentially for the hope of good fortune on the ship’s voyages. For instance, one of the earliest known references to a similar practice when launching a ship goes all the way back about 5,000 years ago when a Babylonian stated, “To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed,” before launching a new ship he’d made.

The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians also called upon their various gods to protect a new ship and her crew upon its initial launch. For example, the ancient Greeks, during their launch festivities, would drink wine to honor the gods and pour water on the ship as a sort of blessing.

The religious aspects of ship christening remained well into more modern times, particularly in Catholic nations. For example, there’s an account of a ship christening by the Knights of Malta in the seventeenth century that describes two friars boarding a new warship, praying, and sprinkling holy water all around the ship before deeming her seaworthy and sending her out into the water.

After the Protestant Reformation, kicking off in earnest after Martin Luther’s 1517 “Ninety-Five Thesis”, certain nations in Europe did away with some aspects of the religious part of the christening. Rather than use religious leaders for this task, members of the monarchy or military leaders would take over the christening duties.

For instance, 65 years before the above Knights of Malta reference, in 1610, the Prince of Wales was present at the christening of the Prince Royal. In this instance, there was a standing cup on board the ship, which is just a large and expensive cup made of some precious metal, usually silver. The Prince took a ceremonial sip of the wine in the cup before throwing the rest of the contents across the deck. The cup was then thrown off the side of the ship to be caught by a lucky observer.

Late in the seventeenth century, the standing cup ceremony was replaced with breaking a bottle of wine over the bow. This switch was in part because the cups were extremely valuable and the British navy was growing rapidly; it just wasn’t practical to continue to give the expensive cups away every time a ship was launched.

As for the switch from wine to champagne, it’s thought that preferences simply switched with the times. Champagne came to be seen as an “aristocratic” choice -for a time in the nineteenth century being more popular than wine among many elite –and, therefore, considered the best option for ship christening. The tradition of using it has stuck around ever since in certain countries.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Rather than use champagne to christen new ships, in Japan, it’s traditional to have a special silver axe made with the axe being used to cut the lines holding the ship from plunging into the water.  After the cutting ceremony, the axe is usually kept by the ship’s owner.
  • Wine and champagne haven’t been the only types of liquid used for ship christening throughout even recent history. Whisky, brandy, and even sea water have been used as well. For instance, during Prohibition in the United States, alcohol fell out of favour somewhat, and water, juice, and cider were often used in its stead.
  • Today, it’s considered bad luck if the bottle of champagne doesn’t break on the ship. In 2007, the Duchess of Cornwall attempted to smash a bottle of champagne against the hull of the Queen Victoria, but the bottle didn’t break. A few weeks later, nearly eighty passengers became sick with a contagious stomach bug. They called it “Camilla’s Curse” and pointed the finger at the Duchess for failing to break the bottle against the ship properly, thus dooming the ship’s passengers to a bad case of a stomach bug.
  • Obviously, it’s all superstition, but to avoid the “bad luck,” people have come up with a variety of ways to ensure that the bottle breaks. The main problem is that the bottles have been designed not to break—you want your champagne in the bottle, not all over the floor, after all. They also have to withstand high pressure from within, so they’re pretty tough eggs to crack. But when a bottle has some small defect in it, its strength becomes compromised. Scoring the bottle beforehand with a glass cutter is one common way to ensure the bottle will bust on the hull of the ship.
  • Similarly, using bigger bottles means that the bottle is more likely to have some natural defect that will make it easier to break. Choosing a type of champagne with larger bubbles is also favourable, because it usually means that the bottle is under a higher pressure and more likely to break. Ropes are often used to swing the bottle toward the ship, and those with less elasticity are better, because the elasticity would absorb some of the shock needed to break the bottle when it connects with the ship.
  • In 1875, Princess Alexandra reintroduced some religious aspects into the ship naming ceremony when she included the singing of Psalm 107 for the launching of the battleship Alexandra.
  • In 1931, Lou Henry Hoover christened the Akron, but no liquid of any sort was used. Instead, a flock of pigeons was released to fly over the ship.
  • It’s commonly thought that the bottle used to christen the Titanic didn’t break, and because of that it was doomed to sink. This is a myth. While it’s true no bottle was broken against the Titanic’s hull, none of the White Star Line ships were actually christened that way. Obviously, not every White Star Line ship sank because of the lack of traditional launch. One of the men who broke the supports from the Titanic at her launch did sustain fatal injuries on the job, which could be taken as a bad omen if you like to look into that sort of thing. The fact remains, though, that the bottle not breaking when it hit the Titanic is a myth because it wasn’t ever attempted.

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