From Oprah to the Queen: Why cruise ship godmothers exist and who gets to be one

Sep 21, 2019

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What do the Queen of England, Sophia Loren, Dora the Explorer and the rapper Pitbull have in common? They’re all ship godmothers and godfathers in a tradition that has evolved from ancient seafaring days.

In Viking times, ceremonies for new ships are said to have involved human sacrifices to appease the gods and protect the ship and her crew. The Babylonians offered ox blood. In ancient Greece, they’d put olive wreaths on their heads, drink wine and bless the new ship with water.

These days, we usually sacrifice a bottle of champagne by smashing it on the bow and then raise a glass to celebrate. Although some ships have had their bows doused with brandy, champagne and wine are the most popular choices. (Through Prohibition, christenings in the United States were often done with water, juice and apple cider.)

When it comes to choosing a godmother, traditionally the offer would be extended to female royalty. But in recent years, cruise lines have been getting creative. The right godmother will get people talking and lead to a whole lot of free publicity, so we’ve seen celebrities, politicians, athletes and even cartoon characters stepping into the role.

Some join their godship’s inaugural cruise, but others only arrive for the champagne-smashing and the flashing cameras. Once the ceremony is over, most don’t have an ongoing role on their ship, though some find ways to keep working together.

So, what kind of person makes the cut to christen a ship? Let’s take a look.

Queen Elizabeth II. The ship that shares her name, the Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2, may now be a floating hotel in Dubai, but the queen is also godmother to three ships that are still sailing the seas. The queen christened two Cunard ships, the Queen Mary 2 in 2004 and Queen Elizabeth in 2010, and is also godmother to P&O’s Britannia. Other royal family members who became ship godmothers include Diana Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton.

HM the Queen attends the opening of Britannia, P&O UK
The Queen attends the opening of Britannia. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

Sophia Loren. The biggest ship godmother of them all, Sophia Loren has christened 14 ships in the MSC fleet. The latest addition to her family, the MSC Bellissima, welcomed its movie-star godmother earlier this year. Before becoming MSC’s godmother of choice, starting with MSC Lirica in 2003, Loren also became godmother of Princess Cruises’ original Crown Princess back in 1990.

Dame Helen Mirren. The British Oscar-winning actress has just become the godmother of the world’s first discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse, at a christening event in New York. The founder and chairman of Scenic, Glen Moroney, says Dame Helen’s “style, beauty and spirit of adventure” are the perfect fit for Scenic Eclipse. It’s not her first time smashing champagne on a ship. Dame Helen also became godmother to P&O Cruises’ Ventura in 2008.

Oprah Winfrey. To celebrate becoming godmother to Holland America Line’s latest ship, Nieuw Statendam, in February, Oprah set sail on a cruise with her friend Gayle King and 2,666 Oprah magazine readers. Oprah has also worked with HAL to provide lifestyle programs across 16 of their ships, including morning meditation and intention setting.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - FEBRUARY 02:  Godmother Oprah Winfrey speaks onstage during the Holland America Line and Nieuw Statendam Dedication with Godmother Oprah Winfrey at Port Everglades on February 2, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  (Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for Holland America)
Oprah Winfrey speaks onstage during the Holland America Line and Nieuw Statendam Dedication. (Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for Holland America)

Dame Judi Dench. Champagne bottles are built tough to withstand high pressure. Unfortunately, Dame Judi Dench found out just how hard they can be when she was christening Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Legend. After three attempts, it finally smashed and soaked her in the process, leading to “Dame Judi Drench” headlines alongside photos of her covered in champagne.

Martha Stewart. A controversial choice in 2006, coming just two years after Stewart was sentenced to five months in jail on felony charges, the lifestyle expert did the honors for Princess Cruises and christened their new Crown Princess ship that year. Now Stewart is working with MSC Cruises, creating exclusive onboard and onshore culinary experiences.

Malala Yousafzai. The youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala continues her fight to give every girl the right to safe, free education through the Malala Fund. When Malala christened Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge with sparkling water rather than champagne, it also marked a two-year partnership between the cruise line and her charity.

Priscilla Presley. Steamboats have godmothers, too, and the biggest and most luxurious one on the Mississippi has Priscilla Presley. The American Queen looks like an old-school showboat on the outside but has modern comforts on the inside. When it stops in Memphis, guests always get an invitation to the godmother’s house, Graceland.

Dora The Explorer.  When P&O was thinking of godmothers for Pacific Explorer, the clue was in the name. The Nickelodeon character was joined by SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for her christening celebration. Other animated godmothers include Shrek’s Princess Fiona, who is godmother to Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, and Tinkerbell, who is fairy godmother to Disney Wonder.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 02:  Dora the Explorer with the Pacific Explorer during the official naming ceremony of P&O
Dora the Explorer with the Pacific Explorer during the official naming ceremony of P&O’s newest ship ‘Pacific Explorer’. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

Pitbull. When Norwegian Cruise Lines named Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Perez) the godfather of Norwegian Escape in 2015, they took a lot of people by surprise. But it turns out he’s the godfather who keeps on giving. Pitbull’s songs have been featured in Norwegian’s ads, he’s entertained guests at a CruiseWorld event and the video clip for his song “Freedom” is pretty much an ad for the cruise line.

The Love Boat cast. Love, exciting and new… When the Love Boat cruised onto TV screens in 1977, the pilot was filmed on Princess Cruise’s original Pacific Princess. Flash forward to 2014 and six of the main cast members are godparents to the line’s Regal Princess. Gavin Macleod (Captain Stubing), Fred Gandy (Gopher), Ted Lange (Isaac), Bernie Kopell (Doc), Lauren Tewes (Julie) and Jill Whelan (Vicki) reunited to pull a handle that sent 50 bottles of champagne crashing against the ship’s hull before singer comedienne Charo brought down the house with a flamenco guitar performance. Now that’s a party.

This article has been updated to reflect that the Love Boat pilot was filmed on the Pacific Princess, not the Sun Princess.

Feature photo by Sina Ettmer/EyeEm/Getty Images

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