Michael Rybovich reflects on how to best name a boat—and reveals his best of the best, and worst of the worst.
Milt Wagner was our peerless sign painter for over forty years. He owned and operated Wagner Signs out of a storefront down on 24th Street in old Northwood, with a large garage door in the back alley that allowed him to letter commercial vehicles inside. He worked in and out of his shop on commercial signage or in the local boatyards, depending on the project at hand. Milt lettered the name and hailing port on our first boat, Miss Chevy II, before she rolled out on timbers for her launch in 1947 and stayed extremely busy in our yard with new construction and service projects throughout his career. In the early 50’s, Milt hired a young assistant, Ernie Pate, fresh out of his Army hitch in Korea and eager to learn a trade. Milt, and later with Ernie, lettered the transom of every one of our boats until his passing in the eighties. Upon Milt’s demise, Ernie assumed the helm of Wagner Signs and continued on as our exclusive sign painter until his retirement as he approached the age of ninety, several years ago. They were old school. Milt and Ernie hauled their paints and tools in a perfectly maintained, old step-side F-100 with three-on-the-tree. When they arrived at the yard, they would set a painting plank on perfectly painted, bilge-gray wooden blocks behind the boat and use a wooden yard stick to measure the transom. One of them would return the next day with the velum lettering pattern and tape it to the stern. The pattern was perforated along the outline of the letters and chalk was tamped across the pattern with a rag, leaving a faint white outline when the pattern was removed. With a steady hand, they painted inside the chalk line and outlined the letters with a fine brush. If the name was to be lettered in leaf, they applied sizing and rubbed the leaf over the sizing, turning it, using a thumb on a soft cloth. The whole process from patterning to outlining was done by hand. When Ernie retired, we enlisted the skills of John Teeto, who is a talented artist in his own right. John is an old school guy as well, but employs the use of technology for the pattern making and graphics. We have come to rely on him and his excellent work and I pray he doesn’t retire anytime soon. He, like Milt and Ernie, simply knows what looks good, what doesn’t and how to balance the name with the transom dimensions, which is a consideration that seems to be lacking on many lettering jobs today. There is no cyber-substitute for a good eye.
Unless there is an outboard (or five) clamped onto the stern, every boat that cruises by our yard has a name across the transom. Most people wouldn’t dream of painting a name across the trunk of their expensive automobile. Sure, you see culture war bumper stickers, rear window memorials and family silhouettes, Salt Life stickers (whatever the hell that is), etc., but naming the vehicle and assigning a hailing port is out of the question. The ass end of a pick-up truck would be a perfect spot for a name and hailing port. The bed of the truck and tailgate is similar to a sportfish cockpit and transom but other than a business logo or a “How’s my Driving?” sticker, it’s a blank canvas. Maybe we should start lettering the tailgate. It would sure make it easier for law enforcement to identify the over-served, and road-rage psychopaths could easily spot their nemesis on a subsequent outing. Parking spaces could be assigned like slips, with the name of the truck on the stop. And, of course, the whole world would know who was parked in front of Rachel’s. Maybe it’s not such a good idea.
Naming a boat is an important task. It is a deep-rooted, sea-faring tradition which requires a lot of thought, and displaying that name is a custom unique to boating. It is an essential requirement of ownership and, when done right, takes serious consideration. The name should complement the boat and the owner. Done wrong, it can follow both like a bad nickname. Once you’re committed, painted or vinyl, reconsideration is like changing wives—painful and expensive. Incidentally, changing your wife’s name on the transom means you’re probably going to lose the boat anyway so why go there? Some of the names we’ve painted on transoms over the years were regrettable impulses that stuck like 5200 to the owners and crew. Names like Orgasmatron, Sleazy Lisa, Murder One, Anna Wrecks It and Salt and Battery (electric boat), seemed like a good idea at the time but were never bound for the top 100. The name and the style of the lettering reflect the owner’s taste, good or bad. There are the traditionalists who cling to the block style fonts. The name parallels the transom camber, and the hailing port is straight and level. This is usually done with turned gold or silver leaf and outlined to match the boot. Some folks prefer script over block and, when done right, it can be as appealing as block. A problem occurs when the transom becomes a canvas for tacky graphics mixed with the name. Many people tend to forget that the boat is the art and if it’s not, maybe you need a better-looking boat. I, like most honest men, love to look at calendar girls but I don’t want to cheapen a seven-million-dollar asset of artistic engineering and a $60,000 teak transom with a trollop riding a fish or a Viking pissing on a Hatteras. Call me a prude. And if I see one more “Reel Something,” I’ll grab a “Reel” hole saw and put a “Reel” end to it. It was cute at first. Now it’s an insulting fad, like purple hair. Reel Banal, Reel Galling, Reel Stupid.
Boats and ships have two personal pronouns, “She” and “Her.” That’s it, folks. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s how it’s going to be forever. No one is ever going to ask, “What’s his length, beam, or draft,” at least not when referring to a boat. Or “What is they’s fuel burn at 1850, Cap”? How can I be so sure of this, you ask? It’s simple: I’ve seen the episodes of Star Trek when Capt. Kirk has the starship Enterprise running on her pins, tabs down, into a cosmic head sea and Scotty says to Kirk, “She’ll not stand much more at Warp 9, Captain.” I don’t know about you, but that’s all the proof I need. Star date 5928.5 and the good ship Enterprise still identifies as a “She.” As a result of this certainty, many boats are named for women. A wife, daughter, girlfriend (big mistake), goddess, etc. Names like Deborah Anne, Jolene, Lady Catherine, Aphrodite, Calypso, Queen Elizabeth and the like, maintain an ancient tradition of naming a boat for the ones who wait at home for a sailor’s return from the sea, or the sovereign or deity who sent them on the mission. Even ships with corporate or masculine sounding names like Exon Valdez, Enterprise, Bismarck, or Titanic, were all referred to as she or her. “She’s got beautiful lines,” “She’s unsinkable. Her bottom is double plate.” “She was the queen of the fleet in her day, or “She’s hard aground, Cap, give her another hundred in all astern.” Some activist Klingon may try to change that, but it’ll never happen.
The best names are the ones that somehow relate to the owner or the boat and stick in the mind of the reader. A successful fishing program helps to cast them into the ring of honor as well. Looking back, there are special names that come to mind: Sail Ahoy, Bimini Babe, White Swan, Lovango, Caliban, Fighting Lady, No Problem, just to name a few. Some are classic, some are clever and most people have their favorites. After a lifetime of building and maintaining these girls, one name remains at the top of my list. All of the boats that our family owned over the years were named Fiasco. That just about sums it up. The day-to-day maintenance expense, the unpredictability of equipment failure, the not-so-perfect guest behavior, cockpit mayhem and missed fish, the navigational errors, and the weather, all contribute to the chaos of boat ownership and operation. As kids, we thought the name was amusing. As adult boat owners, we realized it was apropos. Although the good days far outnumbered the bad, for Dad it was the problem days that stuck in the memory and fed the tall tales of adventure at sea, hence the name “Fiasco.”
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Over the years and through successive owners, the great boats will always remain as sweet, regardless of the name on the stern. When you get a hundred or so of them out there, it’s hard to keep track and all we can hope is that the stewards of these vessels treat them with respect and apply that respect when lettering the transom. When I asked Milt Wagner about it years ago, he put down his brush and looked at me with his gentle smile and explained: “A great boat deserves a great name. We owe that homage to the boat, son. She deserves it.”
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