Isn’t it odd that instead of raising a glass to toast the launch of a ship, we brutally batter a bottle against the bow? It’s a traditional rooted in superstition.
Ancient mariners led dangerous lives. Those in peril on the sea had only the most rudimentary protection again angry seas or simply getting lost. For them, the obvious precaution was to make a sacrifice to the gods to satisfy their hunger. This would speed the ship and protect the crew. At first those great seafarers the Vikings made human sacrifices, but later human blood was spilt and given to the sea gods. Some people, notably the Turks, made animal sacrifices. The civilised Greeks drank wine to honour the gods and blessed their ships with water, and in medieval times red wine was offered to the sea as a symbol of blood sacrifice. Some seafarers believed that the gods of the sea - Neptune or Poseidon et al - demanded blood sacrifice, so that if it was not offered at the launch of the ship, the gods would take it later from the crew. Some sailors thought that the spirits of the dead in the sea would guide the ship and offering them wine would encourage them to bring them safely to their destination.
In medieval times, there was a shift in emphasis from blood sacrifice to appease angry gods, to the blessing of the ship. In England priests would board the ship, touch the masts, perhaps invoke the help of a particular saint and bless the ship with a Mass. This was all seen as a bit too Catholic in post-Reformation England, so a hybrid practice was adopted. Red wine was sipped from a large gold or silver cup, known as the ‘standing cup’, and then the rest of the wine poured over the deck or the bow of the ship in a sort of blessing while the ship was named aloud, before the cup was tossed into the waters as a gift offered to the seas. In fact, often the cup was retrieved and sold off by some lucky diver. This was an expensive habit. As more ships were launched, the precious cup was caught by a net and re-used. Eventually in the late 17th century the practice was banned, and instead a bottle was broken on the bow. The Navy has launched its ships like this ever since.
Obviously although red wine is most reminiscent of blood for a blood sacrifice, the most dramatic wine for ship launching is Sparkling wine, traditionally champagne. Nothing is more impressive than an explosion of foamy spray. The practice of launching a ship by bashing a bottle of bubbly against the bow is wide-spread, it is not universal. The White Star Line, for example, eschewed this hybrid sacrifice-blessing. Would The Titanic have enjoyed a happier fate if she had been launched according to the proper conventions?.
It is also supposed to be bad luck if the bottle doesn’t break on the bow. Champagne bottles are toughened glass and hard to smash. It is best to score them with a diamond cutter to ensure a bursting on the bow. If the bottle doesn’t break, ill-fortune is said to follow. In 2007 the Duchess of Cornwall launched the ‘Queen Victoria’, but the bottle refused to smash. When scores of passengers later became ill with a contagious stomach bug, people blamed the ‘Curse of Camilla’. Dame Judi Dench went through 3 bottles when launching the ‘Canival Legend’ in 2002. She smashed the third bottle with such force that she earned the nickname Dame Judi Drench.