On Naming Boats, or why we love Boaty McBoatface.

My first personal research vessel, a 20′ runabout with a huge staging area, was name ‘Black Smoker‘. It was an homage to the hydrothermal vents I study (via a much larger vessel), but also a reference to the nasty old Force 125 outboard, that burned oil like it had just driven the Seleucid Empire from the Temple Mount. My second boat, was small, but lighter, faster, and much more aggressive. I sailed it in some seriously marginal seas. I named it ‘Iffy’.

The French named two different research vessels ‘Pourquoi Pas?’ (literally “Why not?”) which, in addition to being hilarious, is also the answer to the question: Why did you name your ship Pourquoi Pas? The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been studying  Lake Mendota for over 6 years via the research platform ‘David Buoy’. And though the Celtic Explorer was given a strong and noble name, an engine incident on one fateful cruise led many in the Irish research community to informally rechristen it the Celtic Exploder (true story: I once reviewed a proposal that referred to it as the Exploder, throughout).

Giving a research vessel a silly name is a deep and abiding tradition within the marine research community. And, frankly, even if a vessel has a Very Serious Name (TM), the crew is still going to call it something else.

I think Boaty McBoatface is a perfectly good name for a ship, and I agree with Craig McClain that it is a great science outreach opportunity. Did you know the U launched Sikuliag last year? Or that the British christened the Discovery in 2013? No? Well I bet you know about Boaty McBoatface

But beyond the outreach potential, there are some real, practical reasons why silly or whimsical names are a superior choice. I hate naming boats after people. Exploration-driven research should be about looking forward and inspiring the next generation, not wallowing in the past. We build monuments for the dead, we build ships to live. Endeavor, Endurance, Voyager, Curiosity, Challenger, these are names that inspire. Imagine if New Horizons had been named for a recently deceased president and we were exploring the other solar system with the Ronald Reagan?

And that brings up another point: people are flawed. There is no explorer, not historical icon, no titan of science so pure of spirit that naming a vessel after them wouldn’t alienate someone.

On that point, I have two more specific issues: Naming ships after living people (David Attenborough is one of the leading competitors for McBoatface) seems exceptionally weird. And while Honor Frost would be an amazing name, naming ships after women has one unforseen problem: sailors are not known for being particularly tactful. When ships are named after women, the crew (both sailors and science crew) refer to the ship using the kind of crude language that can  create a hostile working environment, language I haven’t heard used will male or non-gendered ship names.

Sexism at sea is something that needs to be stamped out regardless, and no one should be made to feel unsafe or unwelcome while doing their job, but there is the political reality of needing to drive a cultural shift away from the preponderance of sexual harrasment at sea, and there is the practical reality of being trapped on a boat with people, sometimes for months, and needing to get the job done. And besides, for all the reasons stated above, I really don’t like naming ships after people, at all.

Boaty McBoatface is the kind of name we dream of for good, engaging science outreach. Absent McBoatface, a name that inspires, like Challenger, or a name that ties the ship to its home, like Cape Hatteras, is far superior to any person.

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One comment

  1. Brian Schlining · March 25, 2016

    Good points. But I’m still rooting for R/V Ice Ice Baby.

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