It sometimes happens that we’re asked about our boat name and its origins, we are an English vessel and the spelling often seems a little strange to some. Sänna. It’s patently not English and when registering with confused harbourmasters in foreign harbours we are usually taken to be Swedes or Danes or maybe Norwegians, perhaps of some mysterious viking descent. In fact the origins are unusual and you might be interested to know a little more – the reason why our sailboat Sänna carries such a curious name. I can’t tell you everything though, not the whole story, not the sad bit…
To those of you who are interested, Sänna is one of a number of medieval names that derive from biblical Susanna. In German and other northern languages, especially those associated with the historic Baltic Hanseatic League countries of middle-age Europe, it’s written as Saenna which is the correct pronunciation of the letter ä, even in English. In the Scandic-Viking languages of the far north it is more usually Sanna, that is except in the Karelian region of eastern Finland where it is written as Sänna, the regional dialect there preferring the keener emphasis of ‘ae’ but in their own precise form. In the principality of Karelia it is never Susanna, nor Sanna and most certainly not Saenna. Nowadays Karelia is not even in Finland though I wouldn’t expect you to know this, this vast region of forested wilderness was lost to Joseph Stalin’s Russia – forcibly given up by the defeated Finns in the aftermath of their bitter hard fought war with the Russians during the Winter Wars of 1941-1945. The sorrowful story of the Karelian people forced to abandon their homeland is for others to tell, their extreme sufferings are best told by far more accomplished writers than me. Anyway, Sänna, in English, should be pronounced ‘Saenna’ but never is.
When I acquired my sailboat Sänna from her previous owner, a vastly knowledgeable sailor by the name of Mr Le Suer, she was then named Suzerain, a name I quite liked and would have kept. Sadly my then wife Susan who for many years I loved dearly was no lover of boats, though I thought I saw enough similarity in their names to attach a significance, you know, one of those sentimental things which men do when trying to convince their wives that buying a boat is a good thing to do. But my wife told me in no uncertain terms that if I bought the boat of my dreams then she would divorce me which, to my everlasting surprise, she did – one of those horrible clear-cut twists in life that change everything. Without doubt she had clearly suffered enough… it is not unreasonable to suggest to you there were far more turbulent waters under that proverbial bridge than I should tell you right now. Anyway, Le Suer’s own dear wife’s name was Suzerain (hence the name of his boat) which is also a historic derivative of the name Susanna, one that he wished to keep for his next sailboat, a fine wooden Gullet then being built especially for him in the boatyards of Turkey. Unfortunately long standing sea-going protocol, Lloyd’s regulations and common sense say there should never be two vessels with the exact same name, there are historic marine insurance laws that have been laid down through the years which are strictly applied – what happens if those two ships ever collide? So I changed my new sailing boat’s name which as you may well know is never a good thing to do.
Wrinkly greybeards who know a thing or two about the sea say it is always bad luck to change a boat name… and so it proved. They tell you the sea gods will vehemently disapprove unless strict ceremonial protocols are rigorously followed to avoid misfortune and dire mishap, none of which I adhered to or even knew about at the time. Just three days after I formally took ownership of my boat and christened the new name Sänna I received a frantic telephone call from the marina in Dubrovnik where she was moored to say there’d been a terrible accident. Quite a bad one in fact. They had dropped another sailing boat from their travel-hoist on top of my renamed Sänna causing considerable damage. Her mast and rigging were broken, sails torn and ripped with much of the exterior stainless steel structure irreparably damaged. It was a catastrophe that was indisputably their own fault and to their credit the marina owned up. By far my biggest problem though, it turned out, was the marina being owned by the Croatian government, so was their insurance company – with Croatia at the time being nearly bankrupt from those terrible wars in the Balkans. The year long arguments between two intransigent insurance overlords meant that repair work meandered along at a frustratingly slow pace with work standards conducive to contractors who had no money. The story of her new mast smuggled over the Croatian mountains from Slovenia in the middle of the night in what turned out to be a tax fraud is a not very humorous story to be told over a few beers to those of you sworn to utter secrecy.
It is not unreasonable to tell you that I did not foresee any of this bad luck nor the eventual breakup of my marriage when I first saw my new sailing boat sitting in the glorious sunshine of Dubrovnik harbour. Well, I wouldn’t would I. Why should I expect anything like that? What followed was a hellish six months of mind-bending stress accompanied by threats of dire retribution, open fist-fights and hair-pulling arguments although somehow things slowly got done and all the repair work was eventually completed. That’s repairing Sänna I might add, not the heart-wrenching separation from my former loving wife. And through the following summer, when the work was completed, my life flipped upside down when I sailed the beautiful Adriatic Sea with my ever rascal of a father and my three loving daughters but it was obvious even then that things were not quite right with my new sailboat Sänna. Never change a boat name is what old salty sea-dog sailors say… I was constantly reminded of this by knowledgeable fishermen mending their nets in secluded fishing villages and hidden harbours up and down the sublime coasts of Croatia and Montenegro.
But sometime later, after the horrible end of my marriage, things turned around very nicely when I got together with my now wife Marie, which is a particularly nice story but one best saved for a long rainy day. We sailed Sänna through the magnificent Greek Islands to Turkey to arrange for almost all of the Croatian work to be done again. It’s fair to say that Marie and I stumbled into our relationship because we’d both suffered tough times, in Marie’s case things that perhaps I do not have the right to tell you about just now. We took time out to refit Sänna whilst at the same time repairing the wreckage of our turbulent lives, we ever so slowly mended our mixed-up minds in the sublime sunshine of glorious Turkey, ready to sail Sänna around-the-world because that is what we’d decided to do. In Turkey we discovered there is a vast difference between the morose warlike Croatians and the compelling boatyard skills of the happy smiling Turks who I myself truly believe are God’s special people.
So, I now hear you ask, why all of this nonsense about boat names? Well let me tell you some more. Sailors and fishermen are always keen to talk about the origins of their boat name. Walk down the dock and get into even a short conversation with any salty sailor fixing his boat or a wizened fisherman mending his nets and you will invariably learn why their boat has such a compelling name etched about her stern. It’s always on the stern with a sailboat, never the bows like some big grey ship. Fishing boats are different of course, fishermen have their own extremely good reasons why a boat name must always be written upon the bows… if you wish to know why then this is a convenient reason for you to go down to the fishing harbour to ask, most fishermen will be only too pleased to get into long conversations with you about all manner of things relating to the sea. Occasionally though, you will come across one of those long-grey-bearded sailors with a battered sailing boat who seems more distant, with a long-lost look in his eye that instinct warns you is personal, when your intuition tells you it is best not to intrude. I think you know what I mean.
The name of a boat can have strong emotional bonds, something which can be intensely personal and that of course is why boats are nearly always referred to in the feminine tense… she or her even when the boat has a masculine name – but there’s not much masculinity about a boat that in reality is meant to keep you safe, a floating sanctuary that has your life in her hands. There is a sense of caring love that defines a loving wife, a long remembered sweetheart or an anxious mother, the girl you loved and never saw again, perhaps the precious daughter who didn’t make it through. This is the reason why you often see the carved figure of a mysterious woman or perhaps a mermaid on the bows of many old sailing ships. History provides much historic evidence like the Mary Celeste for example, the Victoria another, specifically female names which commonly happens amongst seafarers or anyone who specifically knows the deadly perils of the cruel sea. There is a long tradition with those who sail the oceans that a memory buried in your boat name will always protect you, that is if it’s all done right – if it’s done wrong then only your God will help you. Both the Mary Celeste and the Victoria were renamed just before they sailed.
But sometimes renaming your boat is something that must be done and bad luck can turn into good luck if you persevere and stick with it, if your reasons are right and you can make the sea god raise one eyebrow and smile. Sänna suffered bad luck to begin with, with her broken mast and torn wrecked sails but since then she’s come good, she’s gotten us through real bad stuff when at times I really thought we might not make it. Maybe that’s because my reasons were right and I chose a good name, a name that was perhaps wrong to begin with but then the powerful man-god of the sea saw fit to change his mind. Because in the real world wives do not divorce their husbands just because they buy a boat, wives divorce you because you plan to sail away and leave them. They divorce you because you’ve hurt them and they don’t love you anymore, when there is nothing left between you, just a mess because you’ve foolishly screwed things up. Then, when your life turns viciously upside down, the name written upon the stern of your boat can become significant, it can become your guardian angel, the soul that’s going to protect you or perhaps, if you do bad things to those who love and cherish you, even destroy you. That’s why old greybeards know things must be done right, they must be done in a certain way to keep the mighty male sea-god firmly on your side.
My boat name was wrong though in the end it was right. Perhaps I did stupid things I shouldn’t have done, when I thought that buying a sailboat would be my way out, a crazy way of turning bad things around. At first, never did I think the name of my boat would ever save my life… only when we nearly perished in a vicious storm one horrible black night, when a strange ghostly young girl stood before our mast to somehow guide us through did I realise that Suzerain was never my name to have, that I alway did need to choose the right name, a boat name that belonged to me that was intrinsically linked to me alone. My boat name needed to be mine so that an emotional bond could then exist… but foolishly I did not follow the way of the sea when I changed things around. I was warned there would be trouble and so it proved. Then I went and chose the right name, a powerful name that was meant to be written upon the stern of my sailboat, a name that has long since held our lives securely in her hands in the memory of a young girl who herself for some tragic reason never made it. That’s a sad story best related to you by someone else, perhaps someone more akin to being a proper human being than I am.
Sänna, a beautiful name, the name of a twinkling jewel that I myself think God creates only once in a short while. Common sense and decency say there are many things that shouldn’t be said right now except my boat name was the only real choice – even when I think now of the personal reasons that horribly played out. Susanna, Susan, Suzerain, Saenna, Sanna and then Sänna… do you not see a tantalisingly translucent link? Perhaps a subtle trail that was always meant to be?
Old greybeards tell you these things matter, that sometimes something insignificant makes the cruel god of the maelstrom sea look upwards and smile. Perhaps now you understand why strangely curious boat names nearly always seem to prevail.
Dave & Marie Ungless are circumnavigating their sailing boat Sänna from the UK and are now in Alaska. Dave is a freelance writer specialising in high latitude sail adventures whilst Marie is a highly qualified sailor in her own right with over forty thousand sea miles under her belt. You can follow their sail adventure so far through their website www.sanna-uk.com and at Sailblogs. Their Facebook page to Like is at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.
Image: Copyright ©️Lora Zombie
2 thoughts on “When Boat Names Matter…”
Very moving narrative but so comforting to know that you have your guardian angel with you forever. Stay safe. Mick
Never question why because it will always be what it is. The whys get us nowhere.
It takes a while to learn these things.