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Once upon a time, not so long ago, river cruise ship christenings were quiet, private affairs attended by a godmother from the owner’s family and a few dignitaries from the region. Times have changed. This spring, Viking River Cruises punctuated its new ship christenings in Avignon with a dinner and a spectacular light show projected on the Pont du Gard.
People connected with ships have strong traditions and one of the oldest —around 4,000 years old — is the tradition of christening and protecting the vessel. A well-respected woman is chosen to bless the ship and name it at a christening ceremony where a bottle of champagne is broken over the ship’s hull. In addition to the honor of being chosen, the godmother is typically given gifts and cruises free for life on “her” ship.
So who are these godmothers, and how are they chosen?
A Mix of Motives
River cruise lines have completely different takes on the godmothers of their ships, and you can learn a lot about the cruise line and its philosophy by looking at them. The process combines diplomacy and politics with strategic partnerships and acknowledgement of what’s important to the line.
Until very recently, Uniworld subscribed to the family godmother model, with members of the Tollman family (owners of The Travel Company, parent of Uniworld) christening its ships. This year, however, Uniworld chose legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve as a godmother. Deneuve christened her namesake in France, where president and CEO Guy Young said she personifies the style and elegance of the S.S. Catherine.
Ted Syke, president and COO of American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), said the company typically chooses a godmother who personifies the vessel, although a recent choice was someone quite different from Deneuve.
“When the American Queen was christened in Memphis, Priscilla Presley was the perfect selection as she was synonymous with the homeport's most iconic attraction — Graceland — and the line’s partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises,” Syke said.
What the godmothers do seems to be more important than who they are for AmaWaterways, which chose actress and philanthropist Sharon Stone as godmother to its AmaVida. The line cited her humanitarian efforts in helping to raise over $300 million for AIDS research.
Ama has also recognized key travel agents by naming them godmothers. Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc. was named godmother of the AmaPrima last year, and this year Brenda Kyllo, vice president of travel for the Canadian Automobile Association, will become godmother of the new AmaSonata. Kristin Karst, Ama’s executive vice president and co-owner, said selecting Kyllo was a way for Ama to recognize the warm relationship it has with Canada.
Citing her style and class, Emerald Waterways named former British supermodel Twiggy the godmother of its first two ships, the Emerald Sky and Emerald Star. Emerald Sky launched in April and Emerald Star is scheduled to debut later this year. Four years ago Twiggy christened Seabourn Sojourn, possibly the only instance of a godmother blessing ships from two cruise lines.
Some godmother selections favor a direct connection with the line, including Scenic Cruises’ selection of Heather Buttrose, the Scenic Crystal’s interior designer, and Tauck’s decision earlier this year to name four female cruise directors to collectively serve as godmother to the new Inspire. Tauck CEO Dan Mahar called the cruise directors “the direct, critical link between Tauck and our guests.”
Managing director Patrick Clark said Avalon Waterways’ godmother choices rest on personal achievement. They have included Patricia Schultz, author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die," Katharine J. Grainger, Olympic Gold medal-winning rower and author, and senior executives in the travel industry.
Viking River Cruises has the godmother game down to a science. They have had to, since the company has named 32 new vessels over the past three years. Next year Viking has 12 new river ships and its first Viking Ocean ship coming in. That’s a lot of godmothers.
“For us, it is critical that our godmothers are relevant and important to Viking,” said Viking vice president Karine Hagen. “That means they represent a specific facet of the Viking experience or they have helped contribute to the growth of the company in a significant way.”
Some godmothers represent the Viking experience in areas like food, wine, art, history or music. Among them is Ana Moura, one of the most famous fado singers in Portugal and godmother to this year’s Viking Hemming on the Douro. As part of Viking’s Oxford & Highclere Castle land extension Viking godmother Lady Fiona Carnarvon welcomes cruise guests into her home, the setting for the Downton Abbey television series. In Prague, Viking godmother Princess Alexandra Lobkowicz shows Viking guests the family palace.
Viking also tapped seven travel agents as godmothers in 2014, along with financiers, shipyard executives and local figures of tourism and economic development. Among the group is Laura Ferreira, the wife of Portugal’s prime minister, who drew clouds of paparazzi when she came to the christening. Loyal guests are also represented in the godmother mix: Gail Wiswedel, godmother of Viking Njord, is Viking’s most traveled guest.
Scholars say that men blessed ships in early times. If the spate of new river cruise vessels keeps multiplying at the current rapid rate, perhaps the companies will go back further in tradition and enlist godfathers.