Time-Honored Traditions: Ship Christening and Launch


Janée Bonner, ship’s sponsor for the future USS Little Rock (LCS 9), breaks a bottle across the ship’s bow during a christening and launching ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed-Martin/Released)

“In the name of the United States, I christen thee Wichita,” Kate Lehrer will declare today, just before breaking a bottle of champagne against the bow of the future USS Wichita (LCS 13). Moments later, the new ship, named for the largest city in Kansas, will launch into the water and be well on her way to joining the U.S. Navy with service in the Naval Surface Force.

Such ceremonies are often punctuated with customs and traditions passed down from generation to generation. Sailors have spent centuries calling upon divine forces to protect them at sea, and believing christenings help bring good luck and safe travel to the ship and her crew. Christening-like ceremonies can be found in historical documents as far back as Babylonian times.

Today, long before a naval ship is christened, it gets a sponsor. At the invitation of the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), each ship has a central figure, traditionally a woman, or a small group of women, who act as the ship’s sponsor into the fleet and become a part of that ship’s history. Although the crew will turnover many times throughout the ship’s lifespan, these designated sponsors are permanently connected to the ship. Most form a warm and lasting relationship with their ships, an affiliation rewarding to both entities. While the names of ships are formally chosen by the SECNAV, the sponsor has the honor of ceremonially christening, or naming, the vessel in the moments before it’s inserted into the water for the first time.

The future USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) is side launched into the Menominee River during her christening and launch ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin/Released)

This introduction to the water is known as launching, which can be performed in a few basic ways. One common technique, called the end launch (because usually the stern, or end, enters first), involves having the ship glide down an inclined boat ramp, known as a slipway, into the water. When there’s not enough room in the waterway to introduce the ship lengthwise, it can be launched from the side. During a side launch, the ship moves down a slipway and enters the water broadside. Another method known as air-bag launching uses a series of inflatable tubes beneath the body of the ship to facilitate the ship’s glide into the water. Lastly, although not considered a true launch, if the ship was built in a basin or dry-dock, the space around the vessel can be filled with water until the ship floats in what is called a float-out.

The future USS Wichita (LCS 13) will be christened via a side launch in Marinette, Wisconsin today. The ship will then undergo a period of outfitting including electronics and weapons systems installation and testing before being delivered to the U.S. Navy for commissioning into active service in the near future.

The ship’s sponsor, Kate Lehrer, is a noted author and wife of the famous journalist, and Wichita native, Jim Lehrer.


Check out the christening and side launch of the future USS Sioux City (LCS 11), a ship the same type as Wichita, in this U.S. Navy YouTube video.


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