Lessons learned when naming a boat

Our first cruising boat was a Hallberg-Rassy 352 named for the co-owner. “Andrea” didn’t mean anything to us, and we were eager to have a new name put a personal stamp on his boat that reflected our family.

Deliberations focused on avoiding particular names, especially the common, the clichés (Second Wind), and the cutesy marine alliterations (Plan Sea). Bet I would have loved this funny boat names site, looking for a name-to-personality match. Ultimately, we put Mau Ke Mana on the stern. This Indonesian phrase is a common greeting I learned living in Bali many years ago, and literally translates as “where do you want to go?” This comes, of course, with a standard response: “jalan jalan,” or, “just walking.” Presto, perfect dinghy name! We were building up to the cruising life and thinking about where we wanted to go, so the name felt right with its nod to our past and our future.

We used to say that Mau Ke Mana was our practice boat for the transition from racers to cruisers: this was the boat that would help us learn new systems, and how to adjust our priorities and aesthetics to reflect our plans to live and travel afloat. Thank goodness for a practice run on the boat name, because we made some serious errors: Mau Ke Mana broke a few important rules we hadn’t considered.

People struggled to pronounce it. This made it difficult for us to be understood on the radio, and more challenging to be hailed by a boat that only saw or heard the name in passing. If we ever need to hail other stations for an emergency, I don’t want any misunderstanding about the name of the boat requesting assistance!

Besides being hard to say or recognize, nobody knew what it meant. Because it wasn’t easy to explain, it also wasn’t easy for others to remember. In the cruising community, nobody knows us as the Giffords. We are the Totems. When you are known not by your family name but by your boat name, it’s really nto a good idea to choose one that’s hard to remember or pronounce. You would think that having spent a lifetime with a name that requires spelling or pronouncing for every new person I meet that this might have occurred to me sooner.

When we bought our Stevens 47 a few years later, she was named Don’t Look Back, encapsulating the prior owner’s departure from a marriage and the USA. I liked the idea of sailing into the sunset, but the divorce baggage had no place on our floating home, and it was too long anyway. Time for another name! This would be at least her fourth, since we found ‘Menagerie’ and ‘Sirius’ in the boat’s paperwork as well.

This time, we thought more carefully about what would be short, simple, easily understood, and readily pronounced (including by non-English speakers). It’s easiest to make the legal change of a boat’s name during a purchase transaction, so we were under a crunch to come up with one in the early weeks of 2006.

One afternoon, Jamie called me from work and just said: “I’ve got it!” As soon as he said Totem, it felt right. It was succinct. It was easy to say. Most importantly of all, it felt meaningful: Totem would look out for us, just as totem spirits do from native traditions in our home waters of the Salish Sea. It was rooted in where we were from, and would take us where we wanted to go. Done. Our new home, the vessel of our hopes and dreams, would be named Totem.

A quick search of boat names in the registry of USCG documented boats only showed a couple of others with ‘Totem’ in the name, and they were fishing boats in Alaska. We didn’t need the clincher, but it reinforced the choice for our boat name, our new family name. Ultimately, it’s that personal connection that has to feel right- whatever rules you decide to follow or ignore.

It turns out we’re not unique with Totem’s name, but her sister vessel is truly a dreamboat. Curious about totem’s Haida-style orca logo? see this blog post if you’re curious about Totem’s totem, designed for us by our friend- and former cruising kid- Korum Bischoff.

10 Responses

  1. Such fun! We almost bought a boat with a horrible, tongue-tying name. We’re glad we didn’t, not because we couldn’t have changed it, but because we saw that poor old girl a couple of years later, and the seller’s cosmetic touch-ups had worn off, revealing the boat’s true state. So when we found Sea Venture, in all her old, truth-revealing droopiness, we were thrilled. Or rather, Michael-the-fix-it-man was. We didn’t need or want to change her name. And he could and did fix her.

  2. We bought a sailboat that had a name but was very hard to read. But we knew it started with a K. So since our other boat was named after our granddaughter. We decided to name this sailboat after our other granddaughter and come up with the name the Kayla K which worked with the faded letter K. Come to find out later her original name was the Kitty Wake. But we already had the papers filled out with her new name. So we are now in the process of building a motor sailor, 28′ footer and her name will be called the Dorinda which is a combination of my name of Linda and my husband name of Dorwin to produce the name of Dorinda. I can’t wait till we get her built. And mind we are in the age bracket of 67-71 yrs. But it is not easy to come up with a name for a boat and it does need to have some meaning!

    1. I love the personal names! And the blended one is great. Our friends named their boat Kamaya after their kids, Kai and Maya. Love names like that, and yes, they all need meaning!

  3. Our boat was named Steel Magnolia when we bought her. A great name for a steel boat from the south, but we are not southerners and wanted both a shorter and more “us” name. We tossed boat name ideas back and forth for weeks before we decided on Vector. Like you, we wanted a name that was easy to pronounce in multiple languages.

    Because we are nerdy, we named the dinghy Scalar 🙂

  4. When we bought our boat, it had a name that was absolutely not acceptable to me. We struggled a LOT with a name because we all wanted to agree (hello, SIX passionate very different people?) We finally did, and in hindsight (I knew nothing about the many ways boat names are used) we should have done the initials, but eh, live and learn. Our name has a backstory and a lot of meaning for us, so I suppose its still a good fit for us. I wish I’d found this post before then!

    Although with the way things are coming around, maybe we should have named our “The Traveling Circus” 😉

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