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A ship is almost always preceded by a ceremony which often includes a blessing on the ship and its crew. Such a ceremony goes back hundreds of years. Thanks are expressed to the shipbuilders for their effort and skill, and to the owners for their faith and financial investment. This is followed by breaking a bottle of wine, or water, on the ship's hull. The bottle has been used for at least 150 years, and many traditions and customs have developed from its use, such as the Royal Navy's requirement that only Commonwealth wine be used.

The method of launching a ship in the traditional manner has been carried out for centuries. Even in today's changing world the shipwright would recognize the techniques of long ago, when it was a regular event to force ships bow-first down greased timbers, using block and tackle attached to the sternpost, but nowadays most ships are built on a slipway with their sterns pointed to the channel of deepest water. In narrow rivers ships are built at an acute angle to the riverbank.

Once the position of build has been selected, the standing ways are laid on the ground and secured, and before the sliding ways are run in, the surfaces are covered with low-friction proprietary greases. As the ship nears completion, the space between the sliding ways and ship are packed with timber and long transverse wedges. Some hours before the launching these wedges are driven hard (a process known as ‘ramming up’), ensuring the weight of the ship is transferred to the ways; at that stage all other supports are removed. To prevent the ship sliding into the water the standing ways and the sliding ways are kept together by daggers. These are released immediately after the naming ceremony, allowing the ship to slide backwards—probably travelling faster than ever again in her life!—though in some very restricted waterways ships are still launched sideways. The hull may have to be slowed quickly with drag chains, or by temporary water brakes bolted to the hull. Every aspect of the launch must receive the closest attention of the naval architect (see naval architecture) and the shipbuilding manager.

Over time there have been many changes to launching practice and some yards have introduced stainless steel ways with, in one case, the sliding ways being coated with Teflon. Also, more and more ships are being built in dry-docks. This allows construction to be on the horizontal and the float out at a time convenient to the shipyard, and not dependent on tides.

Fred M. Walker

Section through ship about to be launched

Subjects: Maritime History.

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