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Marine Superstitions, Time-Honoured Ship-Building Rituals and the Magic of the Steel-Cutting Ceremony

5 min read

By Doug O'Neill

The captain of a Greek ferry once reprimanded a friend of mine for boarding the vessel by putting his left foot forward. The same friend got into hot water a second time when he was caught whistling on the open top deck of the vessel. According to ancient marine superstition, whistling or singing into the wind is forbidden because it can apparently "whistle up a storm."

Rough waters in the Drake Passage. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Turns out there's a lot of superstition in the shipping world and always has been. For instance, did you know you're courting bad luck – such as engine or other mechanical failure – by bringing bananas on board? Or that taking an umbrella onto the ship could invite foul weather? Thankfully, much of that has fallen by the wayside.

There are good luck superstitions, too!

Some superstitions have led, over time, to various rituals that defy logic. For instance, throwing stones into the sea while on board a vessel was once thought to cause storms and huge swells – but such calamities could be avoided by nailing a horseshoe to the mast for protection.

Another feel-good superstition called for sailors to pour wine on the deck of a ship to guarantee good luck on a voyage. (Some marine historians have suggested that splashing wine on a newly-built vessel was a way to check for cracks and leaks.) But there are even more spirited rituals. For instance, there are tales of sailors in the Caribbean who had a habit of tossing a shot of rum into the ocean to please Neptune, the god of the sea, who would protect them for the duration of the voyage.

Ship-building ceremonies that have stood the test of time

As some superstitions dissipate in our modern world, the importance of rituals and traditions in ship-building are stronger than ever before.

Consider the sequence of rituals and ceremonies involved in the building of a new ship. First there's the steel-cutting ceremony, followed by the keel-laying (when coins are placed on the vessel for good luck), the float-out (when the ship is placed in the water for the first time and the construction of its interior begins) and eventually the christening of the ship (often called the launching or naming ceremony).

The steel-cutting ceremony: The first milestone in the life of a ship

Steel hasn't always been the primary material in ship-building. For centuries, ships were constructed of traditional wood such as oak, teak, cedar and pine. And ship-building back then wasn't the work of engineers and crane operators. Marine archeologists suggest that it took 100 Viking warriors nine months to construct a traditional longship that could accommodate 60 oarsmen. That included crafting sails out of wool or linen, which the Vikings would dye blood red for a more fearsome appearance. To ensure the ship was watertight, the warriors would painstakingly fill the spaces between the planks with wool, moss or animal hair.

Steel started to replace wood about 200 years ago, especially for larger ships. Vessels became more flexible and had greater resilience and durability when manufactured from steel.

Quark Expeditions and Brodosplit team pose for a group photo at the Steel-Cutting Ceremony at the Shipyard.

Thankfully, the steel-cutting ceremony in our current age of ship-building is much more refined and doesn't include a raucous crowd of 100 Vikings. It's a celebration between the team at the shipyard and the owners who've commissioned the building of the vessel. There's a lot of excitement in the shipyard when the two parties press the button that starts the laser cutting process. Advanced computer technology cuts the first sheet of steel intended for the hull of the vessel. That symbolic piece of steel is often featured later on as a design element on the ship or simply used as a keepsake of the venture.

Quark Expeditions President Andrew White presses the button for the laser steel cutter to start.

Members of our Quark Expedition were proud to participate in our company's first-ever steel-cutting ceremony on Monday, January 28, in Split, Croatia. Our Norway-based design firm LMG Marin and our Croatian building partners, Brodosplit, joined our Quark colleagues to launch construction of our new polar ship that will set sail in Fall 2020 – and go on sale in Spring 2019.

A steel-cutting ceremony is a magical time when everyone comes together to celebrate the hard work that's gone into the design of the ship. It's the first stage in the life of a polar vessel.

Stay tuned as we publish more blogs with each milestone in the building of our epic new polar ship. Sign up here for updates.

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