The life of a naval ship

Commander Leon Steyn, Historian, South African Naval Museum

The receiving and naming ceremony of the South African Navy’s newest vessel, the second Multi-mission Inshore Patrol Vessel SAS KING SHAKA ZULU (P1572) took place at Naval Base Durban on 27 October 2023.

The life cycle of a ship, and in our case more particularly, a naval vessel has a start date and an end date. These events and everything in between are encapsulated in unique maritime traditions that may be unfamiliar to many landlubbers (most South Africans are). This article therefore aims to explain a number of these fascinating customs that continue to be practised in the South African Navy.

 Keel Laying / or laying down

Laying the keel or laying down is the formal recognition of the start of a ship’s construction. It is often marked with a ceremony attended by dignitaries from the shipbuilding company and the ultimate owners of the ship. The keel laying ceremony is designed to bring luck to a ship during her construction and to her Captain and crew while she is in service. The keel of a ship is her main structural element, the backbone that runs from stem to stern, supporting the entire hull. A keel laying ceremony is an informal affair arranged, for the most part, by the ship’s builder.

Traditionally, after gathering and a short address, a section of keel is lowered into place. The sponsor of the ship or senior naval representative then declares the keel “well and truly laid.” Mementos (e.g., silver plates, silver hammers) may be presented – these become part of the official artefacts of the ship. Chaplains of various faiths may say a few words of blessing that the ship may be protected, and older or indigenous customs may take place. Elders of other nations may attend. In some navies, one custom has the senior naval representative laying a silver dollar under the keel before it is laid. In other navies, a coin may be laid by the sponsor or the youngest or oldest trades person of the shipyard.

The Minister of Defence, Ms Nosiviwe-Nqakula at Damen Shipyard in Cape Town, where she placed a coin on the keel during the Keel Laying Ceremony on 23 February 2019, for the first of three Multi Mission Inshore Patrol Vessels. (Photo: Dean Wingrin)


Ceremonial ship launching involves the performance of ceremonies associated with the process of transferring a vessel to the water. Ship launching imposes stresses on the ship not met during normal operation and in addition to the size and weight of the vessel represents a considerable engineering challenge as well as a public spectacle. The process also involves many traditions intended to invite good luck, such as christening by breaking a sacrificial bottle of champagne over the bow as the ship is named aloud and launched.

There are three principal methods of conveying a new ship from building site to water, only two of which are called “launching”. The oldest, most familiar, and most widely used is the end-on launch, in which the vessel slides down an inclined slipway, usually stern first. With the side launch, the ship enters the water broadside. The third method is float-out, used for ships that are built in basins or dry docks and then floated by admitting water into the dock.

SAS PROTEA launched at Yarrow Shipbuilders on the River Clyde on 14 July 1971. The new hydrographic survey vessel was christened (named) and blessed at this event, but only commissioned into naval service at Simon’s Town, on her arrival a year later.

In the case of the new MMIPV’s, built  by Damen Shipyard Cape Town (DSCT), the launch involved the transportation of the more than 600 t vessel from the DSCT shipyard to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Basin, where it was placed on Transnet Port Authority’s synchro lift and lowered into the water for the first time. The move was carried out at night by Mammoet South Africa using 48-axle Self-Propelled Mobile Transporters.

Naming & blessing: The ship’s christening ceremony  

The ship is most often named or christened during the ceremonial ship launching event, but in the case of the Damen MMIPVs this occurred during the handing over or receiving ceremony. This ceremony involves the official transfer of the vessel from the shipbuilder (in this case Damen) to the customer (the Department of Defence) in which senior representatives sign an official handover certificate.

At either the launching or receiving ceremony, the vessel’s godmother or sponsor (a traditional practice in which a female civilian ‘sponsors’ a vessel to wish good luck and safe journey) smash the champagne bottle on the bow of the ship.

If a name has been selected, the christening ceremony will also see the ship’s name officially revealed in front of the invited audience. In some cases the naming of the vessel may be delayed to coincide with the commissioning ceremony and the arrival of the vessel at its home base. This was the case with the Type 209 submarines that were launched and commissioned in Germany with only pennant numbers, but christened (named) on arrival in South Africa.

The Deputy Minister of Defence, Ms Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge acted as the sponsor of the new frigate SAS ISANDLWANA when it was named and commissioned at the Howaldtswerke in Kiel Germany on 19 December 2003.

In recent history, all sponsors have been female. In addition to the ceremonial breaking of the champagne bottle on the bow, the sponsor remains in contact with the ship’s crew and is involved in special events such as homecomings. In the South African context the sponsors appointed in recent times have typically been the wife of the President of country, wife of the Minister of Defence or wife of the Chief of the SANDF. But other leading figures have also been selected e.g. Ruth Segomotsi Mompati, executive mayor of Naledi Local Municipality in South Africa’s North West Province and a leading veteran of the longtime struggle against apartheid in her homeland, served as the godmother of the submarine S101, later named SAS MANTHATISI. Other examples of appointed sponsors in the South African Navy were SAS AMATOLA – Ms Zenele Mbeki, SAS ISANDLWANA – Ms Madlala-Routledge, SAS SPIOENKOP – Ms Thandi Modise, SAS MENDI – Dr Ruth Mompati.

Before commissioning, the new ship undergoes sea trials to identify any deficiencies needing correction. The preparation and readiness time between the launch and commissioning may vary, from as much as three years for a large and complex vessels, or as brief as weeks, as was often the case during the turbulent days of World War II.


Ship commissioning is the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service. The term is most commonly applied to placing a naval vessel in active duty with its country’s military forces. The ceremonies involved are often rooted in centuries-old naval tradition. At the moment when the commissioning pennant is hoisted and broken at the masthead, a ship becomes a Navy command in her own right, and takes her place alongside the other active ships of the fleet.

In some cases the naming and commissioning ceremony are held concurrently. A good example of this was when the Russian icebreaker JUVENT was procured for the South African Navy and converted to a logistical supply vessel. The ship was commissioned into naval service at Simon’s Town and named SAS OUTENIQUA on 8 June 1993.

The crew of the SAS OUTENIQUA board their vessel for the first time, following its commissioning. In another naval tradition that is followed, the most junior rating boarded first, in this unique case, with the ship’s mascot – an adopted Russian dog named Juvent.


Vessels typically remain in service for thirty to forty years. The long & short service of naval vessels was the focus of another article (See The inevitable end arrives when a ship is withdrawn from service and decommissioned.

 Decommissioning and recommissioning

To decommission a ship is to terminate its career in service in the armed forces of a nation. Unlike wartime ship losses, in which a vessel lost to enemy action is said to be struck, decommissioning confers that the ship has reached the end of its usable life and is being retired from a country’s navy. Depending on the naval traditions of the country, a ceremony commemorating the decommissioning of the ship may take place, or the vessel may be removed administratively with minimal fanfare.

Often, but not always, ships decommissioned spend the next few years in a Reserve Fleet before their ultimate fate is decided. In the South African Navy vessels have been decommissioned to remain in reserve or just prior to lengthy refits or conversions. The Navy’s large fleet of nine Minister class strike craft of the 1980s and 1990s were often rotated in this manner. In other cases however, larger vessels (like SAS PROTEA) remained in continuous commission throughout its service life.

The torpedo recovery vessel SAS FLEUR (ii) flying its paying off pennant, returning to Simon’s Town for the last time before decommissioning in 2003 following 34 years of service in the South African Navy.
The rusting hulk of the decommissioned frigate SAS PRESIDENT STEYN enters the dry dock in Simon’s Town during the late 1980s. The frigate was eventually sunk as a missile target in 1991 – a sad end to a proud ship.