Here Be Monsters: The Secret Story Behind Cruising’s Most Cherished Traditions


Time has a way of softening things. Traditions become so engrained that we forget what awfulness inspired them in the first place — the handshake being the classic example: now a rote greeting, it was once a way to make sure your new friend wasn’t packing a club.

So should it come as any surprise that many of the endearing traditions we honor aboard today’s cruise ships — traditions harking back to the Golden Age of 20th century ocean liners and beyond — actually have their origins in fear, superstition, loss, and even human sacrifice? It should not.

Read on . . . if you dare.

The Ship Christening; or, Appeasing the Gods so They Won’t Kill You

The sea is a great mystery even today, so how much scarier must it have been for the first mariners as they set off into the unknown, terrified they’d drop off the edge of the world? In that kind of situation, you need some insurance, and the best insurance in those days was the favor of the gods — those being the same gods who wouldn’t think twice about smashing your ship to bits if you didn’t pay up.

In the Chaldean story of the Great Flood, which dates to around 2,000 B.C., Hasisadra, the Chaldeans’ own Noah, details his preparations for launching the world’s very first cruise ship:

To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed;
I established offerings each day.
In the ship, beer, food, and wine
I collected like the waters of a river.

Sacrifices continued to be an element of ship christenings for many centuries, culminating in the Viking period, when a human sacrifice was de rigueur for the launch of a new longboat. As part of the process, the unlucky victim’s blood was smeared on the bow. Later, Christianized boatwrights swapped the blood for wine, and when the marketing men of 19th-century France succeeded in popularizing Champagne, that became the christening beverage of choice.

There seems to be no good reason why ships today are christened almost exclusively by godmothers rather than godfathers. Until the early 19th century, ships were generally named by men, and preferably men of royal blood or patronage. Perhaps the change was influenced by classicists’ fondness for Helen of Troy, who possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships” — and we all know how that turned out.

The Sail-Away Party; or, Bon Voyage, Hope You Don’t Sink

It’s embarkation day. You find your cabin, get yourself oriented, and then, as the sun begins to set, you head out on deck with your fellow passengers to bid the land good-bye. You’re off to sea, and your troubles are over! All that’s missing is the streamers you could have thrown to your friends and relatives on shore if this were the early 20th century and you were sailing on, say, the Queen Mary or Normandie.

If only it were all such sweetness and light. In reality, today’s sail-away parties and yesteryear’s bon voyage celebrations originated with one cold, hard fact: The ocean was a vast and dangerous place, and when your sister, brother, aunt, or school chum sailed away, you might never see them again.

In her 1877 volume Ocean Notes for Ladies, Kate Reid Ledoux offers sage advice for those taking passage: “Say au revoir as cheerfully and as bravely as if you were only going for a short journey. Do not sadden others who are trying hard to be brave too. Leave yourself and them in God’s hands, for he will be with you though the trackless deep lies between.”

And you wonder why the cruise lines push umbrella drinks during sail-away? It’s to combat the existential sadness.

The Captain’s Cocktail Party; or, Thanks for Not Sinking Us

On many of today’s cruise ships, the next-to-last night of a cruise is given over to the Captain’s Gala, an occasion for passengers to don their formal dress, sip champagne, and maybe do a quick meet-and-greet with the master and his officers. It’s all so civilized, you imagine ships have been doing this kind of thing for centuries — and you’d be right, up to a point.

In the earliest days of steamship travel, and possibly earlier, passengers would celebrate the end of their long, hazardous journey by throwing a testimonial dinner for the captain — thanking him for seeing them all safely across the sea. In later years, as trans-ocean travel became safer and more commonplace, these parties retained their dress-up character while also assuming a decidedly goofball aspect, which is why we still participate in . . .

Goofy Onboard Games; or, What Happens at Sea Stays at Sea

Picture, say, your great-grandparents: paragons of uprightness, stern and hard-working. Now imagine that they’re on an ocean liner, among strangers, hundreds of miles from shore. This is their big chance. It starts when Grandpa agrees to wear a silly hat, and it devolves from there. Soon Grandma is pressed up against a suave Frenchman, trying (no hands, please!) to pass him the naval orange she has clamped between her chin and neck.

Those kinds of goofy onboard games got their start fairly early, originating from two simple facts: Ocean crossings took a long time, and shipping lines had not yet invested in the variety of professional entertainments that are a hallmark of today’s cruise ships. Translation: People got bored, and would do just about anything for diversion. This was particularly true of Europeans in the early 20th century, who were known to pelt each other with champagne-soaked cotton balls, attempt to whistle popular songs while eating soda crackers, and knock each other off the ship’s cargo booms using feather pillows.

It’s a testament to man’s need to release his inhibitions that such games still thrive on today’s ships, side-by-side with modern alternatives like Wii computer games, surfing simulators, and karaoke. On Costa’s ships, the “Election of the Ideal Couple” game requires participants to prove their worth by, among other things, bursting a balloon on their partner’s lap by sitting on it, hard — a seagoing tradition that’s at least a century old. A few years ago, a manual for Holland America’s entertainment staff listed the rules for a team water-bottle relay in which one person chugs a bottle of water and then “puts it in their swim suit.” The other team members each get a sponge, which they use to fill that bottle with ice water from a bucket located some distance away. Another game was described with admirable succinctness: “Two teams battle to see who can stuff the most spoons down the swimsuit.”

Less goofy but still fraught with history is shuffleboard. Otherwise known as shove-board, shovel-board, and shovel-penny, the game’s origins go back to at least the 16th century, when it was known in England as shovillaborde and was played in miniature using coins or other small disks. The game was probably brought to sea in the 1880s aboard ships of the White Star Line, which was pioneering the concept that people might actually want to be comfortable and have fun on a transatlantic voyage. The game was enlarged in its seagoing version, which employed a long, shovel-like stick to propel a flapjack-sized puck across the deck into a triangular area marked with four score zones. Apparently perfect in its simplicity, the game has remained unchanged for more than 120 years, and can still be found aboard nearly every cruise ship at sea. Which is also true of . . .

Baked Alaska; or, We Do It Because We Must

Cruise veterans, how many times have you had this experience: You’re at dinner, and it’s approaching dessert time. Suddenly the lights go down, the music comes up, and a phalanx of waiters starts dancing around the room, trays of flaming desserts in one hand, twirling napkins in the other.

Oh yes, it’s the Baked Alaska Parade, and its origins are as mysterious as its staying power.

Variations on the dish itself go back to the early 19th century, though the form we know today — a mix of ice cream and sponge cake, topped with meringue and then heated or flambéed — may have gotten its start (and its name) at the New York restaurant Delmonico’s in 1867, coinciding with the U.S. acquisition of Alaska from Russia. When it made the jump from land to sea is a matter of some dispute. In his classic The Only Way to Cross, John Maxtone-Graham describes a dinner on the maiden voyage of Hamburg-America Line’s 1905 Amerika in which “the lights were dimmed and from the kitchen came squads of waiters bearing overhead a sizzling combination of fire and ice.” While well-received that night, Amerika’s big dessert didn’t catch on in the wider cruise world until the late 1950s or early 1960s, when basic, unevolved versions of the Baked Alaska Parade began appearing on ships. The parade didn’t achieve its fianl, perfected form until 1987, when singer David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) released what would become its vital if unofficial soundtrack, the dance tune “Hot Hot Hot.”

So there you have it: Human progress in a nutshell. Little over a millennia ago, men were making sacrifices to the gods so they’d be safe on ocean voyages. Today, we willingly douse a dessert with rum, light it on fire, and parade it around a crowded room out in the middle of the wine-dark sea.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

(Originally published on, February 17, 2010; Winner of a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award in the Marine Travel category)

Matt Hannafin