From Alice to Aquaholic

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , signage , Voice , typography

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 time.

“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 2006 top-10 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 chosen.

Y Knot? It could be Reel Fun.