PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am

As goddess of the sea, Tin Hau is venerated for the protection she offers to fishermen and sailors. Boats have long had a love-hate relationship with the gentler sex. Women are either the source of bad luck or they bring seafarers the best of fortune.

There is a time-honoured tradition of women launching ships by breaking a bottle of champagne against the prow. Ladies aren't expected to throw the bottle themselves or even swing it against the ship - they are ladies after all - but merely to pull a rope that swings the bottle against the hull.

Bubbly wasn't always the substance used for this purpose. The Babylonians sacrificed oxen, the Ottomans slaughtered sheep and the Vikings purportedly made human offerings when it was necessary to appease the gods of the virulent north seas. In later centuries, the Vikings settled for libations of blood whereas the ancient Greeks sensibly sipped amphorae of wine while dousing their new boats with water.

Until the end of the 17th century, the British Royal Navy launched its ships by tossing a chalice made of precious metal and full of wine over the side. King William III sensibly decided that the 'standing cup' was too extravagant given the navy's rapid imperial expansion and decreed that a bottle of wine be used instead. As a symbol of luxury and celebration, champagne became the wine of choice and has been used to launch Royal Navy ships for the past 300 years.

While christening ships with alcohol is the norm in modern times, the custom wasn't immediately embraced by all commercial lines. The White Star Line chose to avoid bottle christenings for its ships, giving traction to the legend that its Titanic was doomed from the start.

Stories of bottle-launching calamities abound. After a series of mishaps at sea, P&O's Aurora was said to be jinxed because the bottle failed to break the first time at its 2000 launch.

A few years ago, passengers on the Aurora's around-the-world cruise were marooned in Southampton, England, due to engine difficulties. The passenger line offered open-bar service during the repair period and the final tally of free beverages included 9,200 bottles of wine and champagne. Surely it would have been cheaper to bang a bottle of Dom Perignon against the prow to change the Aurora's luck.

When British actress Dame Judi Dench launched the Carnival Legend in England in 2002, she ceremoniously tugged the rope to bash a magnum of bubbly against the hull; the bottle didn't break. Dame Judi then grabbed another bottle but dropped it while attempting to smash it against the bow. The third bottle smashed resoundingly but sprayed Dame Judi in the process, earning her the nickname Judi Drench.

Bubbly is not the only liquid to have been used in the ship-christening process. In 1797, the American ship Constitution, later known as Old Ironsides, was christened with a bottle of madeira. During prohibition, Americans launched their ships with grape juice, apple cider or water - any liquid as long as it did not contain the prohibited alcohol. When Mrs Herbert Hoover christened Akron in 1931, a flock of pigeons was released. In 1996, Britain's HMS Sutherland was launched with a bottle of Macallan single malt scotch whisky.

One has to be careful not to take boats and wine too seriously, but surely the Tin Hau celebrations this weekend warrant popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly or two?