This week I was reminded that even in the era of Donald Trump, people are still capable of taking voting seriously. Because a few days ago my attention was drawn to an exciting ongoing voting process on the Internet.
In case you’re not familiar with this incredible developing story, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK is in the process of designing a new boat. The 287 million dollar polar research vessel is a serious piece of nautical equipment expected to launch in 2019 in order to engage in serious nautical work.
But as everyone knows, a good boat needs a good name. And when I say everyone, I mean even the Ancient Babylonians. As early as the 3rd millennium BC, people heading out onto the water were taking the task pretty seriously, launching their vessels with elaborate ceremony and a carefully chosen name.
The Egyptians did it, too, as did the Greeks and Romans. Ships were most often named in honor of the gods and goddesses sailors felt the need to appease and appeal to for safety on the water. These were important names.
As the tradition continued to develop, ships most often took on feminine personas, either as a natural shift from the use of goddess names or as an outcropping of the feminine assignment in most European languages to la boat.
Some boat naming historians (yep, that’s a real thing) suggest that by giving a woman’s name to a ship, sailors and captains are more likely to take loving care of the vessels in their charge. And as a bonus, should the ship run into danger on the open sea, a feminine entity speaks more to the comfort and care of those who are at the mercy of her strength.
I don’t know about any of that, but what I do know is that finding the right name for a boat is serious business. And I know that putting the Internet in charge of naming your boat is risky. That’s the painful lesson the NERC is now learning. A few weeks ago the Council appealed to the public to recommend names for the new research vessel and then vote in support of favorites.
The NERC got the ball rolling with a few possibilities, including the RRS Shackleton, RRS Falcon, or RRS Endeavor. Fine names to be sure, but the one that has really caught the imagination of the voting public was proposed by James Hand, who added RRS Boaty McBoatface to the list.
Mr. Hand’s idea caught on, and soon jumped to the top of the list, with over 100, 000 votes. And it turns out his suggestion was only one among a long list of very creative (and pretty funny) choices, including the RRS WhateverFloatsYa, the RRS I Like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie, and the RRS Immacrackdatice.
The NERC has actually been pretty cool about the whole thing. In public statements it has expressed thanks to an enthusiastic public for their humorous and overwhelming level of engagement. The Council will, of course, have final say over the name of the ship, and it will most likely not choose to go with BoatyMcBoatface in the end.
Still it seems the public has spoken, and as everyone knows, changing a ship’s name is about the dumbest thing you can do. Again, by everyone, I mean everyone who knows anything about boats, going back millennia.
Because tradition insists that Poseidon himself records and knows the name of every vessel on the sea. If he has to go scribbling them all out in the Ledger of the Deep, it leaves his records messy and confusing, and makes him all discombobulated and cranky. So if you must change the name of a ship, it’s wise to tread carefully.
Personally, I don’t put any stock into such warnings, but then I am not a boat owner, or sailor, or boat naming historian. I’m also thankfully not part of the Natural Environment Research Council, which after the polls close on April 16th, will be tasked with deciding whether it’s better to allow a serious vessel to carry a lighthearted name, or to risk irritating a discombobulated sea god or worse, incurring the wrath of the Internet trolls, and those who take the power of their vote super seriously.
Because one need look no further than the US presidential race to know that people love to vote for ridiculous things. And they get ridiculously upset when you try to reason with them. I’m pretty sure a cranky sea god is the least of the NERC’s concerns.