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THE GODMOTHERS WHO BLESS GREAT SHIPS

AS THE Right Honorable Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Britain, walked toward the new Regal Princess, the Royal Marine Band played "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."

Five speeches, three national anthems (American, British, Italian) and one prayer later, Thatcher stepped forward to perform her duties as the ship's godmother.

"I christen thee Regal Princess. May God bless this ship and all who sail in her."

Proper words uttered, champagne bottle smashed, one of the world's biggest cruise ships (1,590 passengers) was officially christened last Aug. 8 in New York. Tradition endured.

This ceremony has various names -- a blessing, a naming or a christening. But its purpose is the same as the original pagan ritual -- to ensure good fortune upon a ship, her passengers and crew.

The first recorded name-giving occurred in 1418, when Henry V paid the Bishop of Bangor 5 pounds for christening the largest warship of its time, Henri Graze a Dieu.

The French viewed a new vessel much as a newborn child, with both a godmother and godfather, thus slowly changing tradition, and by the 19th century, it was considered bad luck for a man to christen a ship. Nevertheless, Kaiser Wilhelm, dressed as an admiral, christened the Imperator in 1912.

Ships have been christened by royalty, heads of state, first ladies, wives of ship owners and builders, dignitaries and, most recently, celebrities from the entertainment field.

Princess Cruises has snagged some pretty big names for its christenings: Audrey Hepburn for the Star Princess in 1989; Sophia Loren, appropriately, for the Crown Princess, the line's first Italian-built ship.

When Princess Diana christened the Royal Princess in 1984, she followed in the footsteps of other women from the British royal family. When hull No. 534 slid into Scotland's River Clyde in 1934, no one knew the ship's name -- until Queen Mary appeared to use a pair of golden scissors to release a bottle of Australian champagne against her namesake.

The first Queen Elizabeth, launched in 1938, was named for and christened by Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI. Queen Elizabeth II cut the launch cord of the QE2 with that same pair of gold scissors used by her grandmother and mother when christening the previous queens.

There has been another royal mother-daughter combination. The late Princess Grace of Monaco christened the Cunard Princess in New York in 1977. Her daughter, Princess Caroline, christened the Sea Goddess II.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter is the Sovereign of the Seas' godmother. With a bottle of Dom Perignon, the Hon. Shirley Temple Black christened the Seabourn Pride. Opera diva Beverly Sills is godmother of Song of America. The Royal Viking Sun has godparents -- Jimmy and Gloria Stewart. Mrs. Stewart did the official ribbon cutting.

Christenings -- both the godmothers and the ceremonies -- have changed.

Legends are hard to come by, so selection of godmothers has moved away from women of international stature in government or the arts to more popular entertainment levels: pop singer Gloria Estefan for the Nordic Empress, Whoopi Goldberg for the Viking Serenade, Kathy Lee Gifford, star of Carnival's advertisements, for the Ecstasy.

Two recent exceptions, the Princess of Wales and Thatcher, can be attributed to the stature of Princess Cruises' parent company, P & O, a 150-year-old British charter company, the world's oldest and largest shipping company, which has always enjoyed close ties with the palace.

A godmother's selection usually begins in the cruise line's public relations office, which develops a list of names, based on a set of criteria combining the dignity of the godmother's role with the need to generate publicity for the vessel she will name. Senior management and the line's owners review the list, the leading candidate is contacted, and negotiations of terms and conditions of service get under way.

It took Crystal Cruises six months to find a godmother for its first ship, the Crystal Harmony. Looking for a well-respected woman of accomplishment, with elegance and sophistication to match the ship's image, Crystal selected Mary Tyler Moore. This busy star had to write in a film contract a clause that she could take Friday, July 20, 1990, off to christen the Crystal Harmony.

John Maxtone-Graham, marine historian and author of several books on the cruise industry, chuckles over a potentially embarrassing predicament in this fuss over celebrity selection. "If, between the agreement and the date of christening, the person is involved in a sordid scandal, a flop film or named as co-respondent, it reflects badly on the line."

What are a godmother's responsibilities? She names the vessel in the formal ceremony, breaks the bottle, then attends a reception honoring both her and the newly named ship. She often sails on the inaugural voyage, as did Audrey Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore and most of the RCCL godmothers.

"She must sit through an interminable number of celebratory lunches and dinners," adds Maxtone-Graham. "She's part of the show."

In return, the line, and sometimes also the shipyard, gives the godmother a commemorative present. It's often an exquisite piece of jewelry -- its value, according to one line, in mid-five-figure range. Italy's Fincantieri shipyard gave Thatcher a lovely gold Italian-made bracelet, and P & O gave her an impressively heavy, engraved silver commemorative plate.

Others often benefit as well. A substantial donation frequently is given by the line, in the godmother's honor, to a charity she has selected. Fincantieri gave donations for medical research and to Thatcher's college at Oxford.

Whoopi Goldberg requested that a donation be given to Comic Relief, for benefit of the homeless. In Mary Tyler Moore's honor, Crystal Cruises donated $25,000 to each of three charities.

In 1610, a royal prince sponsored the English warship Prince Royal. He filled a golden goblet with wine, sprinkled some of it on the ship's bow and drank the rest (smart man). Then, shouting the ship's name, he threw the goblet into the sea.

This could have become an expensive gesture, so shipowners started smashing bottles instead. The bottles are usually filled with champagne, unless the ships are German, then a bottle Moselle wine is flung.

Although the United States was officially christened at 12:45 p.m. June 23, 1951, with the traditional bottle of champagne, proud shipyard workers had held their own private ceremony at the 4:30 a.m. float-out. From a rowboat, they christened the ship with a bottle of good old North Carolina corn whiskey.

Considering the cost of some of today's bottles, it may be less expensive to revert to the gold goblet tradition.

Crystal Cruises used a six-liter bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal for the Crystal Harmony's christening. Four of the bottles, each the equivalent of 28 standard champagne bottles, were made. This was the first time Cristal had been bottled in this size, a Methuselah, each costing $4,000.

Unlike most christening bottles, which are scored to ensure that they break against the hull, these were not -- Roederer guaranteed that Cristal's bubbles generated sufficient pressure to break the glass when it struck the hull.

In 1988, the Sovereign of the Seas, then the world's largest cruise ship, was christened with the world's largest champagne bottle. Called Sovereigns, these bottles, just over 3 feet tall, a foot in circumference and weighing 77 pounds, hold about three cases of champagne.

Taittinger had the bottles blown in Italy, at a cost of $2,000 each. The bottles were filled with Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, "de-bubbled" a bit to lessen the pressure on the glass. Sovereigns have since become an RCCL tradition for christenings.

Godmothers no longer actually smash the bottle against the hull. The bottle is on an arm, aimed to hit a designated spot where a spike is welded onto the ship. At the appropriate moment, the godmother pulls a lever to release the arm.

Despite this rigging, despite rehearsals, with tides in the exact position as they will be during the actual christening, there are mishaps.

Opera diva Beverly Sills took five swings with the bottle in an attempt to christen the Song of America. But strong winds prevented the bottle from reaching the hull. So Sills untied the rigging, walked off the christening stand with bottle in hand and smashed it against a hawser hook.

When Gloria Estefan released a Sovereign against the hull of the Nordic Empress, the huge bottle hit the ship but didn't break. The hanging line had stretched and caused bottle's neck to just tap the breaker bar welded to the hull. Ship's master, staff captain and the chairman of the board had a quiet, intense conference, sightings were taken, the line adjusted -- and the bottle broke the next time.

The first christening heard on the radio was the Queen Mary's 1934 launch. And, as Maxtone-Graham notes in his book "The Only Way to Cross," the worldwide audience heard the queen whisper, "Shall I press the button now?" The first live TV broadcast of a ship's launching was the June 23, 1951, christening of the United States at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia.

Formerly, vessels were named at the shipyard, during construction, when they first hit the water. Today's cruise ships are christened just before they enter service, usually at a location convenient to the line and its publicity goals -- the ship's home port or a major city.

A veteran of many christenings, Maxtone-Graham notes: "Princess puts on the best show; Lord Sterling does it first class. They've brought over the Scots Guard and the Royal Marines bands. And christening the Crown Princess and the Regal Princess in Brooklyn with the New York skyline in the background -- that was a stroke of genius for photos."

Maxtone-Graham disagrees with contemporary christening practice. "In the old days, christening was at launch time. Now the ship floats off in undistinguished fashion, no dramatic sliding into the sea. I contend that the blessing should be when the ship first goes into the water.

"Christening are now a manufactured occasion. The crowds, ship, godmother and champagne all get together -- it makes a better photograph."

But, no matter how or where it's done, it's still, as Thatcher said, "a very happy day."

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