Gender neutrality goes boating
Published on April 25th, 2019
The Scottish Maritime Museum is to stop referring to ships and boats as “she” and instead adopt gender neutral terms after the word “she” was scratched from a number of signs in the museum.
“For the second time this year, the museum has been targeted by a vandal, who has destroyed one of the interpretation signs which follow the universally adopted and centuries old maritime tradition of referring to vessels as female,” explained Museum director David Mann.
“Like other maritime museums and institutions, we recognize the changes in society and are committed to introducing gender neutral interpretation.
The practice of referring to boats and ships as “she” is a centuries-old tradition, and the news of the change has not been fully embraced. Admiral Lord Alan West, the former head of the Royal Navy, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that the move was “stark staring bonkers” and “political correctness gone mad”.
“The ships are seen almost like a mother,” he said. “They preserve us from the dangers of the sea and, indeed, also the violence of the enemy. To change it in this trite fashion is just absolutely stupid.”
The news has been greeted with similar bemusement in the Irish maritime and sailing community, with one yacht club senior figure saying the banishing of “she” was unlikely to happen in Ireland.
Richard McCormick, president emeritus of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, called it a “harmless tradition” likely informed by seafaring superstitions, sentimentality and even perhaps religion, noting the presence of the Madonna on a medieval model of a ship in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland.
“Ships have been called ‘she’ for generations,” he said. “Why are we always so in a hurry to get rid of tradition?
“When you stay on any ship for any length of time, it becomes very personal to you because it becomes your home. You might not feel romantic about it, but a good ship that has given good service and done good work over the years, I think most people mourn it when it’s scrapped or sunk.”
To start referring to them in neutral terms would be impersonal, he said.
“Sailing ships are rather beautiful creatures to look at and to call it an ‘it’ would be, to me, not giving it the due respect it deserves,” he said.
“Whereas if you say ‘She’s a lovely looking ship under way’ that expresses respect for it. Maybe that’s where the tradition came from. They don’t look great in harbor, but out on the high seas in rolling waves, they have their own character and personality.
“I think a lot of people would want a lot of convincing to change something that is as traditional as that.”
Peter Richardson is the secretary of Royal St. George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. A small boat sailor, he said he adhered to the tradition of referring to sea vessels as ‘she’ and did not anticipate Irish sailors retiring the term anytime soon.
“My personal view on it is that boats, much as we love them, are inanimate objects, and thus unlikely to take offence at how we refer to them,” he said.
“The club would conform to the norms in Irish society, and if it became the norm in society to use a gender neutral term to refer to boats, we would probably follow suit as a club.
“However, I think it’s unlikely that Irish sailing folk will change their practice any time soon.”
Editor’s note: There is precedent in this shift as it has already been made by Lloyd’s List, one of the world’s oldest continuously running journals, having provided weekly shipping news in London as early as 1734.