The Pressure of Picking Sailboat Names

There are more considerations to sailboat names than meets the eye
Sailing World

Sailing World: October 2009

Coming up with sailboat names is always a challenge, especially for anxious new owners. It’s an undertaking that should be handled with great care. Sailboat names, as trivial as it may seem at first, define the essence of a boat, its owner, and often its legacy. As I travel around the waterfront I am sometimes intrigued by boat names. Other times I’m mystified. I’ve named many boats over the years, and the approach that I always take is to first make a list of categories: patriotic, geographic, legacy, bold, whimsical, from literature, movies, science, lifestyle, and a person to honor. A dictionary is a good place to start, but for inspiration there are lists of sailboat names found in yacht club registries, Lloyd’s Registry, and history books, to name a few.

The graphic presentation and typeface should fit the word or words being used, and for this, a graphic designer will be your best asset. It is nice to have a unique look or logo that might also be used on a spinnaker or the hull. I particularly enjoy seeing boats that coordinate hull, sail, and crew clothing graphics. All professional sports teams work at making bold statements, and so, too, should we. A club’s burgee and hailing port can also be integrated into the graphics as a way to promote your local sailing scene at away regattas.

Naming a boat can be more complicated when partners are involved, so be patient, the process can take months. I was once part of a group of four owners trying to name a boat, and we never could agree. Once we reached a deadlock, we decided to have an outside party come up with a name. It worked.


Many owners carry over a name from one boat to the next, which helps create a history that new and old sailors can appreciate. Two high-profile owners from England, for example, have owned more than 30 boats in their careers—Yeoman and Oystercatcher—and most everyone on the Solent instantly associates these boats with their owners and the many crew that have crossed their decks. Tom Hill’s latest Titan is No. 15 in the Titan pedigree. That’s a mighty impressive run.

Legacy names prevail long after their heydays. Several come quickly to mind: Merrythought, Gem, Nitemare, Palawan, Thunderhead, Kodiak, Ondine, Kialoa, Donnybrook, Matador, and Pyewacket. Other owners have themes for their boats: one of my favorites is that of Jim Swartz, who named his boats afer James Bond characters like Moneypenny and 007. George David has had fun with Idler and Rambler. Two-word names seem to add to the importance of a yacht: Running Tide,_ Northern Light_, Stars & Stripes, and Blue Yankee are boats that come readily to mind.

There is often the question of whether a boat should be renamed when a new owner acquires it. I believe a new name isappropriate. Ted Turner’s Tenacious was originally named Dora IV afer the wife of its original owner. Ted was a ladies’ man, but that would never fly. Plus, Tenacious better suited his dynamic personality. Ted owned two boats named Tenacious.


I have named my last three boats in honor of great yacht designers of the past. I owned two boats named Whirlwind, a name that aptly describes my lifestyle, but more importantly was a tribute to L. Francis Herreshoff, who, in 1930, designed a double-ended J Class boat of the same name. The crew only won one race that America’s Cup season, but they kept trying. My first Whirlwind was an L. Francis Herreshoff-designed knockabout from 1932, the second was a Sabre 402. My most recent boat, a NYYC Swan 42, is Mustang, a name I borrowed in honor of Rod Stephens’ series of personal yachts.

Over the years, trends have greatly influenced the names of legendary boats. The 12-Meter era featured bold names such as Vim, Valiant, Intrepid, and Courageous. Then there was the patriotic era of the America’s Cup, with names like Stars & Stripes, Freedom, Liberty, Australia II, New Zealand, and America3. The exponent following Bill Koch’s America3 was a fun nod to science.

The America’s Cup has since been taken over by corporate branding; this is a trend I hope goes away so we can get back to more memorable names. Thomas Lipton challenged for the America’s Cup in part to promote his Lipton tea, and yet he called his boats Shamrock for good luck. He was Irish, after all. During the Great Depression, owner Harold Vanderbilt named his J Class boat Rainbow, letting the public know that brighter days were ahead.


Geography provides relevant names for boats. Olin Stephens raced the legendary Finnestere, named after a point of land in Spain. We had Easterner, a 12-Meter, from the Eastern YC. There is, of course, Atlantic, which set a record in the 1905 Transatlantic Race under skipper Charlie Barr. Even the founder’s of the New York YC were smart in naming their revolutionary schooner America before sending it to challenge the British.

Today, it seems, there are many offbeat names attached to boats. In my hometown of Annapolis, one Etchells sailor was so grateful for the use of household funds to buy a boat he smartly named it My Wife’s the Best. And on the flip side, who can forget the famous 50-footer named FUJIMO? If you haven’t heard the origin of that name, ask around. Perhaps it’s a story best told on the rail.

Be careful with some names that might be too boastful if things do not work out. For example, in 1958, the 12-Meter Columbia was originally going to be called Swift, but the syndicate decided against it in case the boat was not as fast as its name implied. Defender was another name that appeared twice for the America’s Cup (1895 and 1983). Perhaps the name was a little too presumptuous. Aggressive names can be dangerous, too. In 1987, the America II syndicate nicknamed its boat The Eliminator, which sounded good until it was eliminated from the trials earlier than expected.


A name can be made up as well. In 2003, Ernesto Bertarelli showed up with Alinghi, a curious name that rolled off the tongue nicely. Today the word is a brand name of its own, but at first it seemed kind of whimsical. It is a word that Bertarelli made up in his youth. Later, he created a definition for it: “joy, dreams, a certain lightness, but also speed and action.” After the multihull challenge we are scheduled to see for the 33rd America’s Cup, I wonder if Alinghi will take on a different meaning.

Movies and entertainment can provide the inspiration for a name, but be careful of trendy names that may fade in meaning as the years roll by. Still, they can be playful. I recently cruised on a 90-foot Fife built in 1914 named Sumurun. The name comes from a popular English play from the period. Sumurun was the mistress of the Sheik in a play.

During a recent Newport to Bermuda Race, I made note in an Internet report that there were some strange names of boats in the race: Zippity Doo Dah,_ Nasty Medicine_, The Cone of Silence, Fat City Too, Better Than…., and Euro Trash Girl. It’s great to see there are owners who appreciate fun and interesting names such as these.

Once you decide upon a name, make the most if it with crew clothing, stationary, and maybe even stickers for the car. A well-named boat can quickly attract a following, and soon crew might be sailing for the experience and the gear. People like to name lots of things. We give nicknames to our friends and foes, and we name our children and our pets. In some places, like Bermuda and Nantucket, people even name their houses. Boats are special and deserve good names that fit the owner’s persona.