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Cruising traditions

Georgina Smith / 27 July 2016

Cruising is steeped in tradition. Find out some of the most common practices that still happen today, from having a ship's Godmother to 'crossing the line'.

Table setting for formal dinner
Fine dining is an expected part of a cruise.

Cruising is an elegant and exciting way to see the world. It's steeped in tradition and even today, cruise lines and their passengers celebrate a wealth of customs that date back to the mists of our seafaring past.

Ceremonial ship launching

One can safely assume that these days, the wonders of modern engineering can mitigate bad luck. Nevertheless, when you embark on a cruise, it's likely that your vessel will have been steeped in some sort of blessing or ritual at launch, just in case.

It's a hang over from years past, when launching a ship was literally a sink or swim situation. (After all, when a ship is first thrust into the water, it experiences what's probably the most structurally testing moment of its life.)

And whilst protecting a ship against bad luck at launch may in the past have involved some sort of animal sacrifice, it's reassuring to know that today's practices are slightly more refined. So much so, that the obligatory bottle of bubby is now often smashed against the side of the ship by mechanical means. One simply has to pull a lever et voila, you've got what some might deem a waste of good plonk.

Cruise ship godmothers

Today, unlike centuries ago, the smashing of the bottle (or at least the lever-pulling) is conducted not by some high priest who's doing his sincere best to appease a tempestuous sea god, but a celebrity, often a female, perhaps out to placate a persistent PR agent.

Helen Mirren, Sophia Loren and Julie Andrews are just some doyennes who've lent their bottle-smashing (or lever-pulling) skills to a ship launching ceremony. And of course, members of the royal family are renowned for undertaking this role, which is known as the cruise ship godmother, with utmost poise and finesse.

Sail away party

Safe to say that by the time you step aboard, your ship was launched successfully. Whether that was by the power of good ship-building or the spirited spoken words and deft lever-pulling of a minor royal or person of note. Nevertheless, you are now on board and ready to set sail. (Except there are probably no sails – you're on a cruise ship after all.)

The next tradition you'll encounter – one you can wholeheartedly participate in – is the sail away party (again, no sails, but we'll park that one there). This usually involves joining the rest of the passengers and crew on the top deck or in one of the bars or cafes on board for an embarkation celebration.

Back in the day everyone would line the decks to wave to the throngs amassed on the dock. But unless you've got your very own fan club or rent-a-crowd to bid you bon voyage from way below, you'll probably find yourself more inclined to sip a glass of fizz in one of the bars inside, amongst your fellow passengers.

Dressing to the nines for dinnertime

Cruising seems to always inspire a sense of style. Perhaps that's because you have to think about what clothes you're going to take with you and plan your outfits well in advance. Being limited to a luggage allowance means one must make smart sartorial choices. But, of course, there's also a long tradition of dressing impeccably when cruising the high seas, for the sheer pleasure of it. This is never more evident than in the evenings at dinner.

Men are usually expected to wear a dinner jacket and even encouraged to don a tie as well. For women, it's also a splendid opportunity to dress to the nines, although crafting a new look each evening can require a little creativity – especially on longer cruises. Unable to bring your entire wardrobe, one useful tip is to pack a few plain dresses that can be brightened up with colourful scarves and your favourite jewellery.

The Captain's dinner

If there's one opportunity to really go for it and glam up on your cruise, it's the Captain's dinner. Traditionally, this is a chance for you to meet the Captain of your ship, enjoy a complimentary glass of fizz, and enjoy a formal occasion where everyone is decked in their finest. The Captain’s dinner is a highlight for many cruisers as it evokes the seafaring sophistication of years gone by.

A spot of afternoon tea

Another tradition you can look forward to on a cruise is high tea. Most cruise lines serve afternoon tea in one form or another each afternoon. It's a great way to punctuate your day and feel refreshed before getting ready for the evening's activities. What's more, when cruising the world, even the most seasoned travellers might like a taste of home once in a while – even if that's simply a cup of Earl Grey and a scone.

Crossing the line ceremony

If ever your cruising takes you as far afield as the equator, you'll usually enjoy an entertaining version of an age-old seafaring tradition called 'crossing the line'.

Originally a form of initiation for inexperienced seamen, sometimes involving arduous physical tasks in steamy tropical heat, outrageous fancy dress, and raw eggs, hot sauce and aftershave lotion (don't ask) – thankfully today's commercial cruise lines don't see the financial benefit of offering such jolly japes to their customers.

Thankfully you'll be able to enjoy a fun interpretation of the ceremony – involving no other than that tempestuous sea god, King Neptune, himself – usually in the pleasant air-conditioned surrounds of your ship's entertainment hall, dining room or ballroom – and with only mild audience participation (promise). It's an amusing way to celebrate a significant point in your journey, and you'll still be able to call yourself an initiated crosser of the line, without downing raw eggs or worse (anyone for a cocktail of hot cause and aftershave lotion?).

The world cruise: the ultimate in seafaring traditions

A cruise that most certainly isn't for the uninitiated is an around-the-world odyssey taking in multiple continents and dozens of ports. With some world cruises lasting up to 120 days, you'll want to be certain that your love of cruising won't be crushed by long consecutive days at sea.

If you've got what it takes, and have the right type of mariner's mettle, with a world cruise you can look forward to a veritable smorgasbord of countries and cultures. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you'll no doubt get to enjoy all of these wonderful cruising traditions, and more. 

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.