Captain Rainbow asked: "What's the procedure for changing a boat's name?" When I replied "You have to file forms CG-1258 and CG-4593 with the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center" he responded "No, I mean what's the ceremony? Don't you have to unstep the mast or something?"
Tradition has it that changing a boat's name is unlucky. Of course, tradition has a whole list of things that you can do on or to a vessel that are considered unlucky, including carrying bananas, beginning a voyage on a Friday, or having a woman aboard. Still, a boat or ship is considered a person in some ways (even today a vessel the same legal status as a person in certain circumstances) and changing the name was considered unlucky.
There are no hard and fast rules for naming a ship, but there tend to be trends:
Naval vessels. In the US Navy, there used to be fairly hard and fast rules for naming ships: battleships were named after states, submarines were named after fish, etc. Those rules have gone out the window in recent years, especially as the traditional size and mission of vessels of a given class has changed. In general, any ship of a given class will follow the naming convention of the first ship in that class (i.e. the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer John S. McCain, both named for American naval heroes), which is determined by Congress. British naval vessel names vary by class as well. Battleship names were inspirational (Resolution, Dreadnaught), "B"-class destroyers have names that start with a "B" (Beagle, Bulldog), and so on. Other countries have their own conventions and traditions.
Cargo vessels. Large cargo ships often have combination names, which may list the company and port serviced (the tanker Exxon Valdez, the chemical tanker Chembulk Shanghai), a country serviced and a "traditional" name (the container ship Arabian Express, the refrigerated cargo ship Costa Rican Star), or plays on the name of the company (Evergreen Lines Ever Diamond, Ever Eagle, etc.).
Cruise ships. If the giant company logo on the stack doesn't give it away, you could probably tell a cruise ship's line from its name. Holland America Lines ships are named after cities and towns in The Netherlands (Zaandam, Statendam). HAL even sells souvenir clothing with the slogan "dam boats" printed on it. Royal Caribbean operates the huge Oasis of the Seas, as well as Freedom of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, etc. And Princess, of course, names all its vessels "Something Princess" (Pacific Princess, Sapphire Princess). The small cruise ships I work on follow similar schemes. Cruise West vessels are named for the "spirit of" historic vessels (Spirit of Discovery, Spirit of Endeavour), their areas of operation (Spirit of Oceanus, Spirit of Alaska) or historic events (of Spirit of '98, named for the 1898 Yukon gold rush). American Cruise Lines' vessels invoke historic or patriotic themes (American Star, Independence).
Work boats. Many tug companies started out, and many remain, family-run businesses and the tradition is to name the vessels after members of the family. Thus, McAllister Towing and Transportation runs the Barbara McAllister, Rowan M. McAllister, and dozens more. Foss Maritime operates the Lindsey Foss, Garth Foss, and Barbara Foss. Operators of offshore supply vessels have similar schemes. Edison Chouest Offshore, for instance, names its larger anchor-handling, tug, and supply (AHTS) vessels after members of the Chouest family (Laney Chouest, Gary Chouest), its smaller offshore supply vessels with the letter "C" followed by nautical or active nouns (C-Commodore, C-Rambler), and its small, quick crew boats with "fast" names like Fast Cajun and Fast Spirit.
Fishing vessels. American fishing vessel names vary a lot. Large, company-owned ships might have large names like Alaskan Enterprise. Smaller, family- or individually owned vessels are frequently named after family members, often wives or daughters. A friend of mine's father owned a fishing vessel named after her and a second vessel named Defiant which, one of her friends claimed, was also named after her.
Recreational boats. Almost anything goes. Recreational vessels often have a more light-hearted approach in their names than commercial vessels, sometimes with a play on words that's nautical (Seas The Day), fishing themed (Reel Fun), vacation oriented (Anger Management), or a combination (E Sea Livin').
Changing vessel names. As mentioned above, most commercial operators will just fill out the paperwork, pay the fees, and paint on the new name. Tradition says the vessels must actually be submerged before re-naming, although nautical writer John Vigor has a more practical (and fun) procedure here.
Pictured above: The Arthur Foss moves the US Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, now decommissioned. For more on the Comanche, see the Comanche 202 Foundation's web page here.