This is the ceremony that brings peace of mind to the owner of a brand-new boat, or a newly painted one. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that awful period of tension and trepidation that accompanies a beautiful but vulnerable paint job as we wonder when the first scratch will come, and how bad it will be.
There are people who walk around their new boats with smudge pots, reciting ancient incantations, and others who wrap their beauties in blankets of fat fenders, but nothing works for long. Sooner or later the paint or gelcoat is going to get scratched. That’s an undeniable fact.
Meanwhile, until that dreadful act occurs, you will suffer for days and weeks, worrying, bracing yourself against the inevitable, and wondering when the dastardly deed will occur and who will be the dastard that does it.
This simple ceremony relieves you from all the pain of this period of tension and fretting. By deliberately putting the first scratch on the boat yourself in some inconspicuous place, you forestall the agony of anticipation. And then, when your gleaming paintwork finally does get ravaged by some thoughtless idiot whose anchor has dragged, or by some uncaring maniac who has never learned to dock his boat properly, you can laugh at it instead of being consumed by rage, because it won’t be the first scratch. It won’t be such a shock. Your feelings of revenge will be muted (if not dissipated entirely) and you won’t be plunged so far into the depths of gloom and despair.
There is another aspect of the first scratch that you shouldn’t overlook, either. People with highly developed artistic appreciation have often noted that perfect beauty equals perfect blandness and perfect boredom. There has to be some exciting “strangeness,” as Bacon put it, or some fascinating “flaw,” as Ellis noted, to spark the fire that lights all true beauty. Hence Mona Lisa’s lopsided smile and Marilyn Monroe’s beauty spot. The small scratch you inflict on your boat will be her very own beauty spot. It will amplify the pristine glory of the rest of the paintwork and evoke endless gasps of surprise and envy from passers-by.
Yes, well. Before we get too carried away let’s examine the practical aspects of the First Scratch Ceremony. First, choose a place for a beauty spot consisting of a single scratch about one inch long. It can be longer, if you like, but not smaller.
You can make it as conspicuous as you like, as Marilyn did, but most of us prefer to place the scratch on the hull high above the waterline—perhaps under the gunwale where it will not be too obvious, or high on the transom.
Having decided on your spot, mark the area with a hollow rectangle of masking tape for the ceremony. During the ceremony you will make your scratch with a suitable instrument. Whatever you use—the sharp corner of a file, a ceremonial knife, or that old nail you found in the bilge last week—choose it carefully because you want it to work right the first time. You don’t want to hold up the ceremony and embarrass your guests while you struggle unsuccessfully to penetrate the iron-hard surface of your new Awlgrip.
Here is the wording of the ceremony, which you should read aloud:
An Appeal to Aphrodite
O Aphrodite, worthy guardian of love and beauty, we seek your kind favor.
Grant us this day your help in preserving the loveliness of the fair vessel here displayed before us. Guard her against disfiguration, we beseech you, that she may always be admired and respected by mankind.
We pray for your help to preserve her from misadventure and calamity, so that her looks shall neither be marred nor spoiled.
And yet, even as we ask this great favor, we humbly acknowledge that there are times when the gods are too fully occupied to forfend against all possible minor catastrophes to which this vessel will be exposed.
We therefore implore you to recognize the first scratch that shall be made here today, in the knowledge that it will spare us the agony of the endless wait—the awful anticipation that keeps honest mortals awake at night, staring into the darkness, wondering when that wonderful new paint finish will first be violated.
Please bless our first scratch, O Aphrodite, and grant us your help in preserving this lovely vessel from future accidents and collisions that may injure her good looks.
In return for which, we confirm our devotion to thee with a libation, offered in the hallowed tradition of the sea.
Now inflict the first scratch and immediately pour or spray champagne over it. Don’t stint, use the whole bottle. Serve yourself and your guests from separate bottles. When the festivities have died down, and the guests have drifted off home, remove the masking tape.
Other Helpful Deities
You’ll notice that we called upon Aphrodite for help with the First Scratch Ceremony. She was (and still may be, for all I know) the Greek goddess of love and beauty. The Romans knew her as Venus.
It’s important that boaters should know which gods, goddesses, and helpful saints to call upon in times of trouble. Here are some of the more prominent candidates you might consider.
St. Adjutor. This Benedictine monk, born in the late 11th century, is the patron saint of yachtsmen. That’s according to Alex Trebek, host of the TV show Jeopardy. St. Adjutor got hit by the travel bug in 1095, joined the First Crusade, and witnessed “many miraculous occurrences,” none of which, however, involved yachting.
St. Elmo. This legendary martyr, who looks after mariners in general, has been around much longer than St. Adjutor. He became a patron saint in the field of cramps, colic, and intestinal trouble—a sort of runny-tummy saint.
He is also known for his fiery balls—glowing discharges of static electricity seen on ships’ spars during storms. They’re called St. Elmo’s fire.
Poseidon. Here’s a god all sailors need to recognize. You may know him better as Neptune. He was worshiped for some 2,000 years, from about 1600 BC to AD 400. As far as the sea is concerned, he’s the top boss. He is the ruler of all things in and on the ocean. And dolphins are sacred to him.
Aeolus. A son of Poseidon, Aeolus is the controller of the winds. He presented the winds in a leather bag to that famous Greek yachtsman and explorer, Odysseus.
Nike. Not the owner of a shoe factory, but the goddess of victory. All racing sailors need to pray to her.
Hephaistos. Now here’s a little-known but valuable addition to your list of gods. He’s also known as Vulcan, and he is the god of fire, a superb blacksmith and craftsman with the power to instill magical qualities in metal objects. Next time your engine breaks down, Hephaistos is the god to pray to.
Thor. In Scandinavian mythology, Thor was the god of thunder, the son of Odin, ruler of the gods, and Jord, the earth goddess. Thor had a magic hammer named Mjollnir, which he hurled like a lightning bolt at those who displeased him. Which is why you’ll find a prayer to Thor in a subsequent chapter.
Dionysus. Better known, perhaps, as Bacchus, he is the god of inspiration and ecstasy. He represents the irrational impulses in human nature, such as the desire to go boating. And he is the god of wine, the consumption of which in large quantities compensates to some extent for our irrational impulses.
The “First Scratch Ceremony” excerpted with permission from “How to Rename Your Boat and 19 Other Useful Ceremonies, Superstitions, Prayers, Rituals and Curses“ by John Vigor (Paradise Cay Publishers, Copyright John Vigor 2004. Illustration by Tom Payne). Vigor, an author and editor, has written 10 boating books, including “Small Boat to Freedom” (The Lyons Press). Available via the publisher <www.paracay.com>, and other online booksellers, chandleries and book stores.