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Do You Have To Give Your Boat a Name?

A boat named lucky catch loading tourists.

You’re not legally required to name your boat. However, you’re not legally required to name your kid, either. Some things are simply a good idea.

The general rule is that yachts, sailboats, houseboats or any other boats that are longer than 30 feet should get a name. However, smaller boats like fishing boats or speed boats aren’t expected to.

Moreover, the practice of naming boats is a thousand-and-something year old tradition, one that’s based in superstitions and grounded in rules, rituals, and practicality. Unwritten rules have kept the practice of boat naming alive for a long time. Having an understanding of the custom can make you feel more connected to the nautical world, even if you choose not to follow suit.

So, while you’re not obligated, you might feel a sense of responsibility as a boat owner, to give your boat an epic name.

Related: Can You Get a Mortgage On a Boat?

Boat Naming Superstitions

A red and blue engined boat named John Patrick.

Think you must be superstitious to take part in superstitious musings? The most scientific minds entertain sports superstitions or say good luck to their colleagues.

So, take the following to heart (with a fine grain of salt):

  • A nameless boat is an unlucky boat
  • Renaming a boat is unlucky, there are specific steps you must follow to do it
  • Showy, arrogant, or fate-tempting names are bad luck

Is it bad luck to not have a name for your boat?

It’s considered bad luck to sail the seas on a nameless boat. Therefore, naming a boat is not merely an afterthought among boat owners. Additionally, once a name is given, the process of changing it is not easy.

Hundreds of years ago, it was harder to predict bad weather and rough waters. With so much out of their control, sailors put their fate into the hands of luck and compensated for their lack of control with superstitions. This way, sailors could at least influence their luck and take comfort in a sense of authority over their lives against a temperamental ocean.

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A boat is an extension of the sailor. A name gives the boat living elements like their life’s outlook and may imply a destiny or purpose. Names can reflect determination, gratitude, humbleness, or happiness–all good things. And on an ocean that could swallow you alive, why not stay positive.

The tradition of naming a boat may have started in part because sailing on a nameless boat is akin to sailing aimlessly. It’s like leaving your life in the hands of chance, which is neither caring or calculated. To avoid feeling a total loss of control, sailors gave boats a name to reflect agency.

Boat Naming Etiquette

Boat with a name of Independece spotted tied up in the docks.

Traditionally, boats were named after a special female in a sailor’s life. Boats should have names that are generally brief and may include one or a couple of words. It’s best practice for the name to be easily understood over broadcast radio. In addition, names should be easy enough to write and able to fit on the surface of the boat’s stern.

Boat names can reflect your profession, hobby, or passion, like the name Knot on Call, for instance, if you’re someone in the medical field. Double meanings as well as puns are popular in the boat naming culture. The more creative the better, like Knot Guilty if you’re a lawyer or Hook and Ladder if you’re a firefighter.

Similarly, part of the naming strategy should reflect the boat, and the boat’s personality. The name can reflect the boat’s size or what type of boat it is. Entertainment and fun are typically key to giving a boat a cool name. The general consensus regarding boat naming etiquette is that you should take your time to decide on the name that fits best.

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What should you not name a boat?

There are regulations in place to avoid naming boats anything deemed too long, obscene, racist, or profane. However, the rules are not overwhelmingly strict and judgment about what’s considered appropriate is relatively relaxed.

Also, boats should not have names that denote alcohol use, such as Drunken Sailor, On the Rocks, or Three Sheets. Interestingly, boat names often reference sex and sexual innuendos are quite the rage among sailors. Names such as Seaduction, Fishing Chicks, and Happy Hooker are a few real-life examples. When your boat is associated with you for a very long time, the process of choosing a respectable name becomes much easier.

Even names that use a play on words can fall under the umbrella of indecency and obscenity. However, because the regulations on boat names are somewhat loose, many obscene sounding names are allowed. Actual names which are registered and sound explicit include:

  • Aft Hole
  • Cunning Stunts
  • Piece of Ship
  • Ship Faced
  • B-Yacht’ch

While the names are entertaining, these names and others like them may not give you a name that is received well or gives you the kind of respectable command you’d prefer.

According to the United States Coast Guard, boat names ought to be short and should typically include 33 characters or less. Furthermore, a name must not sound like, or be similar to, any word or phrase that is meant to call for help while out at sea.

There are some specific names that have been banned which fall under words and phrases used to call for assistance at sea. Several names which cannot be used to name your boat include:

  • Police Boat
  • Sinking
  • Man Overboard
  • Mayday
  • Coast Guard
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The names above are banned for obvious reasons, being they would likely cause a lot of confusion in the case of an actual emergency.

Why Do Boats Have to Have Names?

A small red boat with a Portugese name in a canal.

Boats have to have names because it just makes sense overall. In addition to its superstitious culture, boat naming is practical. Giving boats a proper identity gives their sailors an identity as well. Moreover, names give boats identities that are visible to other sailors at a distance while at sea.

I’ve talked about boat owners’ superstitious reasoning around naming boats. Additionally, it’s possible that a name could have a psychological impact on the sailor. It’s possible that a boat’s name reflects a sailor’s personality but also feeds back and reaffirms personality traits.

For instance, if a boat’s name was speedy, might it subtly influence the sailor to be less concerned with speed limits? It’s hard to say whether Arson embraced his legal identity or whether it had any impact at all. And of course, the name may reflect a sailor’s personality already. But perhaps it simultaneously reinforces it like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Research on the psychology of boat names shows the most common name-themes reference femininity, phrases, nautical, and pup culture. Other references include literature, music, movies, and Greek mythology. Music, for instance, has an emotional connection and is associated with feeling good.

Boat names like Maverick or Enterprise reflect power. After all, who’d want to sail around in a boat called Quick Sinker, or Titanic, for that matter. The amount of impact boat names have on sailors, if any, is not clear.

However, the research suggests that a lot of personal values go into chosen boat names. That can be enough to conclude that a boat’s name is more than just a name. And while it’s not required, you have to give your boat a name.