Breaking a bottle of champagne over the prow of a ship upon its launching and naming stems from an ancient practice dating back to Viking times when an offering of blood was used. Up until the late 17th century a cup made from precious metal was used – this was thrown over the side of the ship and King William III decreed that this was a wasteful practice and that wine should be used instead. At the time Britain was building its navy and throwing gold and silver cups over the side was getting expensive!
The practice of using Champagne came about in the late 19th century although ships can be launched with other liquids – the HMS Sutherland was launched in 1996 by a bottle of Macallan Single Highland Malt Whisky! Nowadays its customary for a woman to launch the ship but it wasn't always so. The first known instance of a woman sponsoring a United States Navy vessel was Lavinia Fanning Watson, daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. She broke a bottle of wine and water over the bow of the sloop of war Germantown in 1846.
Interestingly if a ship is not launched properly then bad luck is believed to haunt the vessel. The White Star Line had a rather utilitarian view on this matter and subsequently the Titanic didn't get the customary christening when it was launched in 1911 . . .
More recently the P&Os Aurora suffered the same in 2000 and has seemingly been jinxed ever since. Passengers who had booked on a world cruise ended up stranded in Southampton when the ship suffered from engine problems. P&O opened the bar as recompense and offered free drinks to assuage their passengers discomfort. The company ended up picking up the bill for 9,200 bottles of wine and champagne . . . now wouldn't it have been cheaper not to tempt fate and break one measly bottle of champagne over the vessel in the first place?
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