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Canadian Naval Traditions

by Shannon Leigh O'Neil, Demand Media

    There are numerous traditions and customs in the Royal Canadian Navy, a branch of Canada's armed forces with an illustrious history. In addition to the standard uniforms, ranks and salutes that all military services share, there are customs and practices exclusive to sailors. The Royal Canadian Navy adopted many British maritime traditions because of its historical ties to Great Britain.

    History and Heritage

    The Royal Canadian Navy was officially instituted in 1910. On Canada's East Coast, commissioners set up a naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia; on the West Coast, another base was established at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. Prior to 1910, the British Royal Navy operated naval stations at those strategic ports. Canada's Navy first saw action in the First World War, but didn't have its own ships until 1931, with the launching of HMCS Saguenay. During the Second World War, the Canadian Navy expanded significantly and proved its mettle, waging heroic sea battles, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean. By 1945, Canada had the third largest naval force in the world.

    Launching Ships

    Launching a ship is one of the most important Canadian naval traditions. Every launch is a distinctive event, but participants typically gather around the vessel while a military band plays "O Canada," the national anthem. After declarations and speeches, a Canadian naval chaplain blesses the ship. At that point, a female sponsor, designated by military and government officials, breaks a champagne bottle against the bow and christens the ship by name. The shipbuilder calls for three cheers before the band closes the ceremony with "God Save the Queen." After launching, the ship undergoes sea trials and gets formally commissioned upon completion. Only then is the ship in active service with the Royal Canadian Navy.

    Crossing the Equator

    Crossing the Equator is a momentous occasion aboard a Canadian ship. Sailors who are new to the experience go from being "tadpoles" to "shellbacks" after the passage. In addition to induction rituals, such as getting hosed down with water, Canadian sailors receive certificates that mark their first migration to the Southern hemisphere. These documents not only commemorate the event, but also signify the sailors' endurance of a challenging, dangerous life at sea. Today, these certificates are computer-generated and unembellished. In the past, they were often handwritten and illustrated, resulting in a colorful keepsake ready for framing.

    Nautical Superstitions and Folklore

    Did you know that it's considered bad luck to begin any voyage on a Friday? Or that it's unlucky to whistle aboard ship because it kicks up the wind? Or that a tattoo brings good luck and maybe even acts as an inoculation? At least that's traditionally what Canadian sailors have believed. Superstitions and folklore are common to all mariners, though. In fact, certain aphorisms that everyone uses can be traced to a maritime heritage. One such folk saying is "between the devil and the deep blue sea." In the age of sail, the devil was the seam on a ship's hull bordering the water line. To make repairs, a sailor had to be lowered to hang between the devil and the deep blue sea. Seafaring folklore and superstitions like these have also played a significant and colorful role in Canadian naval traditions.

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    About the Author

    Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.

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