Launching and Commissioning of HMC Ships 

When man first fashioned a vessel and put to sea in it is not known. But it is known that for centuries and centuries the launch of a ship has been a very popular event, and one usually attended by considerable ceremony, just as it is today.

When crowds of people gather in the shipyard, there is an air of cheerful excitement and expectation, not just in witnessing the product of master craftsmen rushing down the ways to meet the element for which it was designed, but also in feeling some of the sense of adventure and enterprise, and wondering what the future holds for this creature about to swim for the first time. This seems to be why people gather for the launch, and why, to this day, the beginning of life for one of Her Majesty's Canadian ships, is such a gala occasion.

The other aspect, the ceremony, has a deeper significance and therefore, traditionally, is of a religious nature. There is the deep-felt need for divine protection for the ship in future encounters with wind and weather, and with the enemy, and divine guidance for the ship's company that they may measure up to the challenges in store and to the traditions of the sailors who have gone before. Over the years it is these needs which are expressed in the formal words and prayers used in the religious services.

Ceremonies relating to the building of a ship, by custom, take place at the laying of the keel the launch and naming, and the commissioning.Footnote 1 However, while each of these functions is essential, conditions sometimes dictate flexibility so far as ceremony is concerned.

In wartime, for example, the keels of most corvettes and frigates were laid without ceremony because of the demands for speed and the nature of production line techniques. Similarly, at Sorel in 1954, HMCS Assiniboine was launched in winter in an "unspectacular and laborious" manner using a marine railway. She was named and commissioned in a dual ceremony on a sunny day in August, nearly two years later.Footnote 2

The keel-laying ceremony is usually quite an informal affair and most of the arrangements are made by the builders. After the arrival of the guests, a brief address is delivered by a representative of the yard, the keel section is lowered into place on the blocks by crane, and the sponsor declares the keel of the unnamed ship (usually referred to by the builder's hull number), "well and truly laid," much as the cornerstone of a building is laid. The long process of construction has begun.

The second ceremony is the christening or naming, and the launching. Because of the long period of fitting out yet to come, the ship is still the responsibility of the builders, including the actual launching. At the appointed time, the crowd gathers, usually reinforced by the shipyard workers out in force to see the result of their labours, and the guests assemble on the platform erected close to the decorated stem of the vessel. Ships and boats in harbour stand by with their whistles and horns ready to join in the celebration. Often, a band is in attendance.

The ceremony itself traditionally consists of these basic elements: a short address by the ship's builder; the blessing of the ship by specially appointed clergy and the naming or christening by the sponsor, now almost always a lady, using the traditional words: "I name you Her Majesty's Canadian ship (name of ship). God bless this ship and all who sail in her." With flags flying, the band playing and the roar of many voices, the new ship starts down the ways for her appointment with the sea.

In ancient times the ritual performed at the launching of a vessel was built around the idea of making a sacrifice to appease the gods who, it was believed, controlled the destiny of the ship and all her future voyages. From these pagan beginnings has come the modern blessing of the ship by the officiating clergy and prayers for divine guidance and protection for the ship and her company. Many writers see in the traditional smashing of the bottle of wine on the ship's bow a parallel with the concept of baptism.Footnote 3 While religious observances have had a prominent place in the launching ceremony for a very long time, a standard order of service, originally written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been in vogue in the Royal Navy only since 1875.Footnote 4

Although the term "christening" is gradually being replaced by the word "naming," in the former can be seen the idea of baptism. An example of its use in eighteenth century North America is the case of the giant raft built by Amherst's forces to carry heavy artillery during the campaign of 1759 on the Lake Champlain route. "In the afternoon (29 September 1759) the Radeau was Launched & christened Ligonier. She is 84 feet long & 20 feet broad on the Platform, where the Guns run out she is 23 feet, & to carry six 24-pounders ... "Footnote 5

Ship sliding into the ocean in front of a lot of people.
The launching of HMCS Algonquin, destroyer, at Lauzon, Quebec, April, 1971.

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Quite a graphic description of a naming ceremony has come down to us from the campaign on Lake Ontario of more than two centuries ago. After the fall of Quebec, British forces spent the winter planning a three-way pincer concentration for the reduction of the last major French position, Montreal, the ensuing spring. Armies were to advance from Quebec the Richelieu and Lake Ontario. To control the lake between Oswego and the St. Lawrence, two hip of war were built at Niagara during the winter of 1759-60, HM ships Mohawk, eighteen guns, and Onondaga, twenty-two guns, (forebear of our present submarine). Launched as Apollo, the new ship and her consort, HMS Mohawk, arrived at Oswego, and Amherst reported in his journal on 1 August 1760:

To please the Indians I desired them to christen the Snow and took all the Chiefs on board in the afternoon, as they had told Sir Wm. Johnson they would like to have her called Onondaga. I had a large flag made with an Onondaga Indian painted on it. This was hoisted just as I christened the Snow by breaking a bottle at the head. Then Gage's Regt fired a volley. The Fort fired a gun & the Royal Highlanders fired a volley & the Onondaga answered it with 9 guns. All this pleased the Indians extremely & I had made them some speeches by Sir Wm. Johnson. Gave them some Punch & they were greatly delighted with the whole promised to be fast friends & said they were ready to go with me .... Footnote 6

It is of interest that in the case of the naming of HM Snow Onondaga, the commander-in-chief himself, Amherst, did the honours. This is a reminder that in earlier times a male member of the royal household, or some other person of high station was expected to do the duty of sponsor when a ship was to be launched. The present custom of inviting a lady to do so dates only from the nineteenth century.Footnote 7

The traditional breaking of a bottle of wine by smashing it against the bow of the ship, now usually achieved by a mechanical contrivance to avoid faulty aim and possible "misfire," stems from the old practice of drinking a toast of prosperity for the ship from a silver cup, which was then cast into the sea, and no doubt salvaged by some enterprising soul. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, this custom gave way to the present practice.Footnote 8

Finally comes the day of commissioning, when the vessel, built, launched and completely fitted out as a fighting ship — stored, munitioned, fuelled and manned — becomes one of Her Majesty's Canadian ships in commission, ready to join the fleet. Behind these procedures are centuries of tradition in which the captain was the ship and the ship was the captain, so much so that the captain was often called, by signal, by the ship's name.

A couple of centuries ago, then, when a ship was to be commissioned, it really meant the commanding officer being handed his commission to place the ship herself in service. Such an officer, ashore, was, in a sense, no longer a sea officer even though he had had many years of service as a sea officer; he was simply commissioned to carry out a particular mission, and when the mission was completed he reverted, to all intents, to civilian status again.

The captain would be summoned to the admiralty in Whitehall and be presented with a formal document, which, in essence, ordered him to proceed to a particular port, such as Portsmouth, to bring a ship out of ordinary (that is, out of reserve), and to put that ship into a sea-going condition. This was a job of formidable proportions. It was the captain's duty personally to see that the vessel, practically a bare hulk in maintenance reserve, was brought forward. He personally saw to it that the ship was fitted with masts, spars and sails; completely out-fitted with guns, ammunition, stores and victuals, and provided with a ship's company, whether they be volunteers or coerced by his own press-gang.Footnote 9

But before any of this could be legally carried out, the captain, on arrival at Portsmouth, would have a boat take him out to the anchored hulk, climb the accommodation ladder and — even though his only audience, other than the ship's warrant officers, might be a couple of ship-keepers and a few dockyard mateys, and they were probably quite indifferent to the proceedings — stand on the quarter-deck and in a great voice read out the terms of the commission that had been handed to him at Whitehall. With the ensign lashed to a jury-staff, and the pennant at the masthead, the ship was now in commission.Footnote 10

Today, the commissioning ceremony for HMC ships is a very moving experience, both for the general public and for the ship's company. The observances usually take place within the building yard, with the ship, freshly painted, secured alongside at the company's jetty. Invited guests occupy a specially constructed seating area with a good view of the proceedings, and the ship's company are fallen in as for Sunday divisions at the jetty-side, adjacent to the ship.

Addresses are delivered by representatives of the builder, the department of supply and services responsible for the letting of construction and equipment contracts, and the department of national defence. There follows a ceremonial signing of acceptance of the ship by high-ranking officer of the two departments and the Canadian Forces, and by the officer appointed to command the new ship. A symbolic presentation of "keys to the ship" are made to the captain by an officer of general officer's rank.

Rows of sailors, saluting, in front of a ship.
The guard and ship's company mustered on the jetty for the commissioning of HMCS Preserver, operational support ship, at Saint John, New Brunswick, July, 1970.

Then comes the commissioning service normally conducted by the two chaplains general from national defence headquarters. It is at this point that the commanding officer orders Her Majesty's Canadian ship to be commissioned. Immediately, the ensign and jack are hoisted and the ship's pennant is broken out at the masthead. It is a dramatic moment; those who "go down to the sea in ships" know that, barring calamity resulting "from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy," the ship's pennant will stream from aloft for a good twenty years.

The keynote address for the occasion is then delivered by the guest of honour, perhaps a cabinet minister or a general officer. (The term flag officer is no longer used in the Canadian Forces.)

There follows a brief address by the ship's commanding officer, largely directed to the ship's company assembled on the jetty. He concludes with the order: "Man Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (name of ship)." As soon as the ship's officers and men have taken over the ship, the commanding officer exercises his traditional prerogative and is piped on board. He in turn greets all the guests who repair to the hangar space for the reception to follow.

The religious service which takes place mid-way through the commissioning ceremony has, through the centuries, held great meaning for sailors about to embark on long voyages in dangerous water to possibly hostile shores. Typical of a modern twentieth century commissioning service was that conducted jointly by the chaplains general (Protestant and Roman Catholic) for HMCS Athabaskan in 1972 at Lauzon, Quebec:

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The Commissioning Service

The Exhortation

Brethren, seeing that in the course of our duty, we are set in the midst of many and great dangers, and that we cannot be faithful to the high trust placed in us without the help of Almighty God, let us unite our prayers and praises in seeking God's blessing upon this ship and all who serve in her, that she may sail safely under God's good providence and protection.

Hymn: (Tune: Melita)

O Father, king of Earth and Sea,
We dedicate this ship to Thee;
O hear from Heaven our sailors' cry,
And watch and guard her from on high.
And when at length her course is run,
Her work for home and country done;

In faith we send her on her way,
In faith to Thee we humbly pray,
Of all the souls that in her sailed,
Let not one life in Thee have failed;
But hear from Heaven our sailors' cry,
And grant eternal life on high.

Psalm 107 (Verses 23 to 31, 43) to be read responsively.

  1. They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
  2. These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.
  3. For He commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
  4. They mount up to the Heavens, they go down again to the depths; their soul is melted because of trouble.
  5. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end.
  1. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses.
  2. He makes the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
  3. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
  4. Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!
  1. Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving kindness of the Lord.

Then shall the Captain of HMCS Athabaskan say to his ship's company in the words of "The Gaelic Blessing":

I call upon you to pray for God's blessing on this ship. May God the Father bless her.

Ship's Company: Bless our ship.

Captain: May Jesus Christ bless her.

Captain: What do ye fear seeing that God the Father is with you?

Ship's Company: We fear nothing.

Captain: What do ye fear seeing that God the Son is with you?

Ship's Company: We fear nothing.

Captain: What do ye fear seeing that God the Holy Spirit is with you?

Ship's Company: Bless our ship. Captain: May the Holy Spirit bless her.

Ship's Company: Bless our ship.

Ship's Company: We fear nothing.

Captain: Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Ship's Company: Who hath made Heaven and Earth.

Captain: The Lord be with you.

Ship's Company: And with Thy Spirit.

Amen.

Let us Pray

O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens and rulest the raging of the sea; who has compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into Thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us Thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and her Dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our Commonwealth may in peace and quietness serve Thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours; and with a thankful remembrance of Thy mercies to praise and glorify Thy Holy Name; through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Amen.

Almighty and Eternal God, the strength and support of those who put their confidence in you, be pleased, we beseech you, to bless this ship which is being commissioned today; guard and protect her from all danger and from all adversity; protect her against the visible and invisible snares of the enemy that she may defend the paths of justice and overcome, with your help, the powers of the enemy. Pour into this ship, the officer who commands her, and all her officers and men the richness of your blessing, guidance, and protection. May they ever be inspired by your Holy Law. May they grasp with their minds, cherish in their hearts, and carry out in their actions the teachings that lead to the safe haven of eternal life; through Christ Our Lord.

Amen.

The Blessing

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render unto no man evil for evil; strengthen the faint hearted; support the weak; love the Brotherhood; fear God; honour the Queen.

And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost be upon you, and remain with you always.

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.

AmenFootnote 11.

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