Boaty McBoatface, Bligh and the Beagle

NERC's new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)
NERC's new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)
NERC's new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)
NERC’s new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)

On 17 March NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council opened an online  competition and poll to name their latest, state of the art research vessel that will ply polar waters carrying 90 researchers to the Arctic and Antarctic, hashtag #nameourship.

The newspapers and online media are full of risible delight that the current frontrunner is Boaty McBoatface, which it has to be said, cannot fail to raise a titter, but which has launched this superb maritime research endeavour into the popular spotlight.

NERC said, “We’re looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do.The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark – or a famous polar explorer or scientist.”

As soon as this story broke, I wanted to find out more about the ship and its projects straight away–a great entry into an otherwise closed and difficult world for the general public to penetrate. I also wanted to find out what other names had been put forward. Boat and ship naming (I’m amazed that I haven’t found more comments claiming it’s a ship, not a boat, and therefore perhaps ought to be Shippy McShipface–don’t say that quickly–update: damn you Jeremy Vine for getting there just before I published this) have been imbued with symbolism and feeling as long as people have been naming their vessels. Usually referred to in the third person as “she” I wonder whether Boaty is a good female name? If the ship is named after a person I bet it will be a man.

But I couldn’t penetrate the website, it keeps timing out and isn’t displaying any sensible content at the moment.

It was NERC’s own Comms Manager James Hand who was announcing the competition that gave birth to this friendly, Mr Man-image inducing name and the eager masses of the internet have proclaimed this name as a triumph, sort of like the sectors of society who follow the Jedi religion.

This article from the Independent has generated a slew of comments in the last 2 hours, such as:

“This is ridiculous. Anyone who doesn’t believe that we are turning like Americans is wrong.”

“It’s a great name and will probably attract far more public attention and interest in the ship’s research and exploits than the proposed “serious” names. But, sadly, I suspect the ship will be given a boring name.”

“I do a bit of sailing and find the best boat names are the ones that are both easy to pronounce and come across clear on the radio.  This certainly ticks both boxes.”

What’s in a name?

Historically, Britain has led a fine tradition of scientific voyages on the seven seas. James Cook and Endeavour, HMS Challenger–giving rise to modern oceanography and deep sea exploration. These ships have lived on in maritime history and the history of science not because of their egregious names but because of the deeds that were conducted by their crews.

A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)
A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s take HMS Bounty for example. Who even remembers that this scientific voyage originally set out to find breadfruit in Tahiti? Captained by supreme navigator and Cornishman William Bligh, Bounty is better remembered for a mutiny and a string of pretty dodgy films that barely acknowledged its original lofty scientific purpose. Or in modern times, perhaps more well known as a coconut flavoured chocolate bar (do you prefer milk or dark?) Incidentally Bligh went on to captain more successful scientific voyages on equally wistfully-named ships such as Providence and Assistant and Director.

A beagle (Pixabay)
A beagle (c) Pixabay

And then there’s Charles Darwin and his voyage on HMS Beagle. Yes, as in the dog. But who cares now? Darwin and the Beagle is almost a rallying cry for every thing that is wondrous and fascinating about the history of science, maritime exploration and the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t conjure up images of the beardy scientist with an unemployed fox hound.

So RRS Boaty Mcboatface may have an illustrious future in front of it, sending us news of the effects of climate change, survival in frozen waters and more but it’s not going to be successful because it has a suitably establishment name but because its scientists will be brilliant. The rest is up to NERC to make sure its messages are spread to the public as well as the scientific community.

However, NERC may get a head start if it went with public opinion. I think that the world will await news from the research vessel with great delight and who knows, may actually act on some of the most pressing and difficult environmental issues our society faces.

It would be a great exercise in public engagement if NERC honoured its massive exercise to garner public opinion about naming its flagship. I’m not the only one saying this but I expect that when NERC name the ship something a bit more – well – boring the ship’s achievements will lose something of the power it could have had. But it will still be a great ship going on some phenomenal missions.

Now, NERC, fix your website so we can find out about the real business of your amazing ship!

1 comment

  1. I very much approve of “Attenborough”. It fits the brief of an inspiring scientist. I have no idea why people were even entertaining boaty. “Bhote” also inspires adventure.

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