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What’s in a name?
Thursday, 09 June 2016 13:00

By MICHAEL GREY MBE

There has been huge levity in the media in the UK and elsewhere about a poll which went badly wrong. Not the EU referendum (yet), but an attempt by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which asked the general public to suggest an inspirational name for their new £200m research ship, soon to begin construction on the Mersey.

The well-meaning sincerity of the NERC, which clearly assumed that the name of some great polar explorer, scientific researcher, or even prominent environmental pioneer would emerge, sadly fell flat on its face.

Assisted no end by social media, which transmits stupidity at the speed of lightning, nearly 125,000 votes were cast for ‘Boaty McBoatface’, which, it is probably fair to say, did not have them nodding wisely in the Council’s scientific circles, at the success of their public relations.
It was a reasonable enough intention but thankfully when the vessel eventually emerges from the Cammell Laird shipyard, it will have a name that is rather more fitting to her anticipated task – the ‘RSS Sir David Attenborough’.

But it might also be asked what anyone in their right mind was doing asking people in the UK, which long ago gave up any pretensions to being a maritime power, to express sensible opinions on anything to do with ships. It is not that many years ago when another poll discovered that most people thought all their imports and exports travelled by air and the merchant navy was a branch of the RN. If you are searching for sea sense, you don’t look for it in these isles.
Ships’ names matter, not least to the seafarers who serve aboard them and while it might be a nice gesture to ask a group of children to compete to name a new ship, the winner possibly even to launch the vessel, if you ask the general public, it is just an invitation to the “smart-arses” who dwell among us to indulge themselves at your expense.

Deciding on a name
I have never been in such a position myself, but I am told that inordinate amounts of executive time are often spent in deciding a suitable name for a ship.  In some companies, the ego of the owner will intervene over the name, sometimes unwisely, should the vessel subsequently become a prominent casualty with his name that is spread all over the newspapers.

Within a few years, for instance, a tanker company which liked to prefix its names with the heroic qualities of its owner, ‘Epic’...’Glorious’...’Dauntless’...etc, had managed to lose five of them by fire, grounding and explosion.

If you call a ship ‘Great Navigator’, you better employ one if you are regularly trading around sharp pointed rocks.

Any compendium of marine casualties contains a disturbing number of vessels named ‘Lucky Xxxxxxx’.

It is courting trouble for an owner to name the ship after his nearest and dearest, lest she become too attached to the vessel during subsequent divorce proceedings. Even if it is a marriage made in Heaven, it is worth imagining the headlines if ‘Lady Gladys’ had an accident and is reported as “lying upside down with her bottom exposed”.

The burden of branding
Names, of course, have been adopted by the corporate people and, rather sadly, are just another means of branding the product they are trying to sell.

I can still recall the indescribable rage of my uncle, a retired shipmaster, when the image consultants employed by P&O thought it a brilliant wheeze to change the evocative names of their cargo ships to something silly prefixed by ‘Pando’. I had to persuade him not to take the train to London and tell the chairman what he thought of him.
But that was when the rot began, imagination or any sense of history or tradition was being forgotten and every name had to advertise the “brand”.

If your brand reflects past mergers, you can end up with some rather long names. I sometimes wonder if the officers of the ‘CMA CGM Alexander von Humboldt’ are envious of the chaps on the little short sea vessel ‘Tim’ as they repeat their respective names over the VHF at pilot stations.
But branding contained in the name carries with it certain risks as the giant oil company Exxon discovered after their ‘Exxon Valdez’ achieved such notoriety in Alaska’s pristine Prince
William Sound.

It is worth remembering that this was before the days of social media, but an “environmental crime” was even then more serious than practically any other and with half the population of the US refusing to buy their petrol, more than contrition was required of the owner. Thus, it was not that long after the event that the tanker company sought anonymity and the Exxon name was seen on the seas no more. 

There is even a risk in permitting a chartered ship to carry your branded name. If it ends up on the rocks with the contents of umpteen containers brought up on the tide, it will be your brand which will collect the oceans of ordure that will be flung around by the media, unable to comprehend the nuances of ownership and management. It is difficult to know why they should in an era when a containership can have the cargo of half a dozen separate shipping lines aboard and 20,000 different cargo owners.

If you are looking for someone to blame, it is so much easier to attack the brand and go for the name.

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