Alaska boat names can sink your spirit or keep you afloat

VALDEZ — A scholar could find a wealth of sociological information by studying boat names in Alaska.

I don't know that anything has been done comparable to the 10-year research project by Florida retiree John McNamara, who once compiled the names of 1,000 boats he saw while paddling his kayak.

He divided them into 25 categories, ranging from birds and children, to alcohol and geography. The dullest name he found was INVESTMENT BROKER, which would win top honors had he included a "big ego" section.

In his "Reflections on Nautical Onomastics," published in 1979 in "Names: A Journal of Onomastics," McNamara's Florida study reported 75 instances of  boats using the "sea" word.

In Alaska, many a boat has been ID'd by "sea" or a phonetic equivalent, such as C Hardy, Sea Asylum, Sea Dreamer, Seclusion, Sea Doll, SeaQuester, Seaduction, Seacret Weapon, Luna Sea, Loon-A-C, Sea Breeze and Sea Ya.

I could go on, but there's also a fine Valdez boat named Enough Said.

Last Sunday, after venturing onto the waters at the Port Valdez in a 24-foot Grayling riverboat with two friends, we took a walk on the docks after tending to the day's catch of silvers. This was to admire the assembled fleet and look at the names.

I've thought for years about the tradition of naming boats, when for most other forms of transport, people seem content to use whatever puffed-up moniker manufacturers stamp on the side. Lots of cars have nicknames, but they are usually not applied in big letters.

Personalized license plates are an exception. A Ford truck in the harbor parking lot came with a plate marked "NSANITY," a name I didn't see used on any boat.

Serenity, which the Boat Owners Association of the U.S. puts at the top of the boat name popularity list based on orders for graphics, has its share of Alaska fans. And Serenity Now will be a contender for as long as there are "Seinfeld" reruns.

Working boats are usually christened with names drawn from nautical tradition or landmarks, such as Bounty, Indefatigable, Cape Trinity and Determined.

The owners are serious and would sooner put Titantic II on the stern than something like the internet favorite, Boaty McBoatface.

More recreational boats are named after women than men, which probably has something to do with the tradition of identifying a vessel as a "she" instead of an "it."

Plus, naming a boat after a wife or girlfriend can help with investment decisions, especially if you mention the name of the boat respectfully before revealing that her boat would be much better with a new $15,000 outboard.

Among those based on inside jokes, there is the 40-foot Brief at Ease, once owned by the late Rep. Mike Kelly. When a legislative body temporarily halts whatever it is doing, the group is "at ease."

In Juneau, such delays may last hours, but legislators always ask for a "brief at ease."

When choosing a name, it is wise to remember you will be identified by that name. If you have to make a radio call to the U.S. Coast Guard on Channel 16, repeating the words Fog Ducker three times in rapid succession will make a lasting impression.

There are many boats with inoffensive names reflecting sun, wind and sky, though not as pretentious as those on the land yachts and giant trailers parked by the dozen in Valdez — Phaetons, Prowlers, Patriots and Presidential Suites.

Boat owners who prefer puns and cute names end up with Knot Afraid, Knot Again, Fraid Knot, Ruffinit, Fin-atical!, Fish Tales, Summer School, Meals on Reels, Reel Busy or Un-Reel.

These are great the first few hundred times you hear them. But as the owners of hair salons and coffee shops have shown, there are endless ways to rearrange letters in the quest to be clever.

Changing the name of a vessel to shed unwelcome connections is not unheard of. You may recall the Exxon oil tanker named after Valdez was rechristened five or six times before joining a scrapyard as the Oriental Nicety.

There are superstitions that it is best not to change the name of a boat unless there is a good reason, which is why many people resist.

I saw what I think is a perfect name on one of the sailboats tied up in Valdez, though I imagine anyone asking the owner the name of the boat could quickly end up in a "Who's on First" routine. The name of that vessel: MY BOAT.

But that's OK. It's not my boat.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

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