Nod Nod, Wink Wink
In 2019, a brand new, hot-off-the-dry-dock bright red vessel will hit the high seas ready to do business with some of the world’s most stubborn waters. This gigantic fist of a ship is designed to punch through ice and lay waste to waves all in the name of science. It’s a superhero of a craft, and like every other ship before it, its name will be proudly cast upon its bow for all the world to see.
And that name will be Boaty McBoatface.
No, seriously. The National Environment Research Council (NERC) put this honor in the hands of the general public as part of a contest to name the ship. And because this is the internet we’re talking about, the people spoke and Boaty McBoatface it is. Apparently they imagined that the only people who would vote would be “marine research fans” with a vested interest in preserving the honor of the fleet.
Boaty McBoatface isn’t a bad name. It’s rather straightforward, if you think about it.
But you do tend to think that the rich tradition of seafaring nomenclature will have taken a hit. The RRS Boaty McBoatface won’t honor anything other than itself — no storied explorer; no awe-inspiring force of nature. No gravitas.
It wasn’t always so. A ship’s name used to mean something: it designated a ship as part of a maritime family, like the Titanic, Britannic, and the Oceanic. The Discovery was built to do just that: discover things. The Terra Nova really did explore “new earth.” Shackleton’s Endurance tried, but could not endure the pressure of the pack ice closing in. That’s the risk you ran with wood.
Sometimes, a ship will become so important that its name will be given to geologic features it encounters. The Erebus, for instance, is named for chaos, and the planet’s southernmost active volcano is named for it. The Erebus’s sister ship, the Terror (what a name!) also gave its name to a volcano. That’s what great ships do.
The Erebus and Terror — what mighty warriors they were. Imagine those twin monsters bearing down on you! Alas, they lie on the sea bed today — not broken up for scrap as many modern ships are once their time is up. They went down while on duty.
Boaty McBoatface will, like all ships, carry with it the predilections of the age that made it. It’s a cheeky moniker, much like that of the man after whom it might have been more aptly named, Birdie Bowers, who was, like the ship, a ginger patriot and loyal servant of the British Empire. He was named “Birdie” due to his beak-like nose.
Lieutenant Henry Robertson Bowers was Scott’s navigator and storekeeper, and he died with the famous explorer in 1912. He is still encased in the ice he died upon as it slowly creeps towards the sea. Perhaps, one day, the RRS Boaty McBoatface will spot him wedged in an iceberg and wink as she sails on by.