And then there are names of boats

I think often of when that first local fisherman saw his boat for the first time. He stood there and admired the beauty of its sleek lines. It was a boat made of wood, and it was named for something or someone he loved very much. A boat’s name truly is the mooring the soul of the boat sits upon. A boat’s name implies ownership and a bond— a friend, a lover of sorts, a partner when riding the seas. You are never alone when in company of a boat; she is always there with you— along with her name— forever.

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Names are special. We are given our name only after our parents have made careful consideration. Our course is then set, direction checked from time to time, and a final push propels us forward to become a part of the world. When we’re all grown up with that given name, we either love our parents for it or ask, “What were you thinking?”

I have seen a lot of boats, and I have met plenty of fishermen since moving here five years ago. Both work hard at a very hard job, both work together, and both tell stories. I am convinced the name bestowed upon a boat says a lot about the owner of that boat or not. It’s a conundrum for sure, and one that has gone on throughout time. But the name of any boat is certain to be the title of a great story.

The naming of boats goes back thousands of years. In ancient times Romans and Greeks named their sea-going vessels from their gods, believing this would protect them and thwart superstition. Christianity brought boats saintly names. There are two purported origins as to when boats started receiving feminine names and being referred to as “she”. One is that as belief in ancient gods and goddesses declined, everyday female names took their place. A second idea attributes the custom with some languages incorporating gender identifiers for objects. Boats and ships were feminine objects in many European languages.

Standing in a garage at the end of a day, fishermen fill the room with their distinctive Downeast dialect and plenty of salt. The brine from the workday covers everything— boots, waders, shirtsleeves and even the brims of baseball caps. They tell me that around here a boat is usually named after a family member— a wife or daughter, maybe a girlfriend.

The fishermen go on to say there is no “science” behind it, as they smile, placing the joke in their back pocket. Then someone says in a thick Downeast slurry, “Sometimes the boat names itself.” Perhaps there is some truth to this, though I tend to believe the name of a boat is derived from a silent partnership, an almost maternal bond between a captain and their boat.

A quick scan of a working harbor reveals names of some boats not tied in anyway to a person. These boats are most intriguing because, along with the name, you can suspect there is a pretty good story lurking behind it. Names such as Persistence, Vindicated, Rambunctious, Nor Easter, Semper Fi and Empty Pockets all come with a story that only the captain knows.

I had my very first boat built by a boat builder in Searsport. It is a 15-foot Penobscot wherry, which back in the day was a working boat used for netting fish. Today, my boat, named Ro, is a boat I use for exercise and to haul a few lobster traps. Since I am a writer and my boat is a rowboat, I named her by using the pronounced form of the word “row.”

Last year I bought a sailboat named Magic. She is a 1981 Southern Cross built in Bristol, R.I. The person that sold me the boat was the original owner; hence, he had the privilege of naming her. In discussing the history of the boat, I asked him from where the name came. He told me that in 1870 the America’s Cup was defended in American waters for the first time and was won by the racing yacht Magic.

For a landlubber the name of a boat is a mystery in real time when passing a harbor filled with boats. I imagine a boat’s name comes as a whisper nudging the sailor, prompting a conversation between captain and vessel.

It is here, when wind subsides and waves flatten, that the name is agreed upon. Once placed on the stern— branded in paint or flame onto a surface of wood or glass— their course is set and together; boat and owner make their way out into the world.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.