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Boat names are a little-noticed slice of vernacular typography
with a rich history. Floating at docks and harbors everywhere,
today's pleasure boats represent self-referential mini-brands.
While many possessions such as cars, homes and appliances are
personalized, boat names don't just exist in the keepers'
minds—they are visual manifestations that leave mere vanity plates
and monograms in their wake. Because of their prominence on the
stern (back) of a boat, these identities make a statement and
represent a commitment. In their simplest form, names act as logos
by visually identifying a boat and reflecting a message about its
owners. More elaborately, they are displayed on customized apparel,
crew uniforms, tableware, linens, cabin upholstery, life jackets
and dinghys. What makes them more than just names, though, is that
their message—philosophically, candidly or humorously—expresses
something personal and instantly recognizable.
Top: “Party Girl” design on boat and engines, (vinyl and gold
leaf); and “Salty II,” creatively incorporating roman numeral
numbering (vinyl), artist: Carla Christopher. Bottom: “Bullfrog”
text and image integration (hand-painted); and “Wind Child,”
showcasing script lettering common on sailboats (hand-painted),
artist: Cindy Fletcher Holden.
Names are typically hand-painted directly onto the boat or
adhered using digitally rendered vinyl graphics. Hand lettering,
crafted by sign painters, was the most common application until the
mid-1980s, when cut-vinyl letters transformed the business. And
today an emerging trend on the largest yachts is three-dimensional,
stainless steel, illuminated letters akin to store signage.
“Aspiration Nassau” gleaming with stainless steel technology,
photo: Daniel Husted.
Some of the earliest references to the naming of ships can be
traced to ancient Egypt, although visual representations of a name
actually inscribed on a ship weren't seen until many centuries
later. For millennia names were purely functional identifiers used
on merchant and military ships, and the simplicity of styling
matched their usage. This type of unembellished marking prevailed
in the United States until pleasure boating became a national
pastime in the early 20th century.
In the first half of the 20th century, only simple ornamentation
was incorporated through the use of outlined gold-leaf letters,
drop shadows, italics and arched baselines. A typical design had
serif capitals for the boat's name with sans-serif capitals for the
hailing (home) port centered below it. Lettering styles included
versions of Caslon, Bodoni, Garamond, and a block or Egyptian sans.
Nearly all boats were hand-lettered—primarily by sign painters or
occasionally the owner—with legibility as the main concern.
More styling appeared by the 1960s and '70s following pop
culture and typographic trends. Letterers used initial caps, swash
letters, underlines and cartouches, dimensional shadowing and
irregular text alignments to give more visual meaning to the name
and make it more personal. They also experimented with different,
more contemporary type styles looking at those available from
Letraset and ITC.
Detail from “Valhalla,” using dimensional shadowing and
engine-turned gold leaf (hand-painted and hand-turned gold leaf),
artist: Lisa Hutchinson; “Sadie” is done with traditional
embellishments (hand-painted), photo: Daniel Husted; and “Nowanda”
is an example of early 20th-century design (hand-painted) (Nowanda
1929 launching © Mystic Seaport, Rosenfeld
Collection, Mystic, CT #22463F).
Integrated text and pictorial elements were a minimum
expectation after the combined forces of technology and culture
redefined boat-name design by the 1980s. The use of graphic
elements went beyond manipulated single letterforms to include
images of life on the water. Fish, fishing rods, animals and
nature's elements were added to enhance the name. The effort to
give meaning to the name solely through the nuances of letterforms
was upstaged by the interest in making the names more visually
explicit. And the types of names changed, too. For example, the
'80s economic boom, driven by corporate mergers, encouraged a new
population of boaters to choose names reflective of their power and
influence. Names such as Bonus Check, Branch
Office and Liquid Asset appeared for the first
“Dragon Lady” full transom (back) design (hand-painted), artist:
Carla Christopher; “Island Hooker,” using sparkling silver metallic
for outlines and fish fins (vinyl), artist: Renee Anderson; and
“Contrary Mary,” with Cuban-styled lettering (hand-painted),
artist: Renee Anderson.
Over the last few decades, consideration for the name, concept
and design has gone well beyond function—so much so that the United
States Coast Guard has instituted vessel identification regulations
to ensure that function and appropriateness aren't entirely
abandoned. As possession personalization grows in popularity, other
trends emerge. Boat graphics designers will attest that powerboat
owners are more apt to select names that are overtly personal,
while sailboat owners still take a more cerebral approach to the
name and design, communicating more about the experience. Powerboat
names such as Fowl Doc or Sea Surgeon, designed
with casual sans serifs and accompanied by comic illustrations of
stethoscope-toting medics, leave no doubt as to what the owners do
when not on the water. Or Perfectly Sue-Ted offers who's
on board and the status of their relationship. In contrast,
sail-boaters frequently use breezy references such as Wind
Child or Wind Star. Regardless, the best names are
custom-designed by seasoned letterers or artists who are skilled at
thinking typographically when generating concepts, who know how to
integrate text and imagery effectively, and who understand the
nuances of each boat's stern.
“Y Knot” ups the kitsch factor (vinyl), artist: Renee Anderson;
“For Play,” standard DIY (vinyl).
Of course wordplay and double entendres abound too, especially
with fishing boats of small- to mid-size. Irresistible word
substitutions of reel for real, and knot
for not, get paired with typical nautical clip-art and
predictably stylized typefaces to create humorous, although
overplayed, graphics. These are easily generated using DIY online
software available from boat graphics websites. As a result, boat
graphics can suffer from the same blandness or predictability as
commercial logos. Certain motifs such as fishing hooks and
oversized marlin have parallels to the overuse of globes and arc
shapes in corporate logo marks. And typefaces such as Brush Script
are employed to reference anything from romance to deceased
relatives, regardless of the appropriateness.
There is a difference between logos and boat graphics, though,
in that commercial entities often try to convey a multitude of
products or services in a single mark, potentially diluting or
abstracting it, whereas boat owners can convey a message as
individual as they are—one that is completely expressive and
experiential. Curiously, at a time when books and websites abound
with suggestions for creating personal brands—and so many
mega-yacht owners have reaped fortunes from their successful
corporate brands—boat graphics are relegated to the realm of
vernacular signage for the most part. Alas, there is more
mediocrity than inspired individualism at sea.
One reason may be that consideration for the name itself still
trumps the importance of visualizing it. In a 2005 online poll for
Sports Illustrated, 22 percent of boaters said that their
boat was harder to name than their children or pets. Looking back,
the 1906 Lloyds Register of American Yachts listed 13
yachts named Alice, and Truant was one of the
more popular offbeat names. Counter that with BoatU.S.'s
list of names, in which Aquaholic is number one and
has been ranked in the top 10 since 2002. This demonstrates that
name choices have changed dramatically, although the process of
documenting them remains in list-form, without the graphics that
visualize them. As technology, customization culture and DIY
expression continue to evolve perhaps the design of boat graphics
will ascend to match the deliberateness by which a boat's name is
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