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Bermuda Roof Wetting a Tradition in History

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The style and elegance of a Bermuda roof is a globally recognized feature of the island. Its step-like appearance is a visual marvel and a creative concept to harvest rain. While it is well known that Bermuda roofs are constructed to collect water and endure the force of nature, few are aware of the unique ceremony that occurs upon the completion of a new roof.

Given its importance, the Bermuda roof is treated with a great deal of respect. When building a home or office building, Bermudians will christen the roof of the newly built structure regardless of scale and scope. In essence, it is similar to the blessing of boats and ships. However, instead of shattering a bottle of champagne against the assembly, it involves a bottle of Bermuda’s own Goslings Black Seal Rum. This illustrious ceremony is called a ‘Roof Wetting’. To fully appreciate the inauguration of this tradition, one must go back in time.

In Bermuda, the first 60+ years of colony development (1612- 1687), tobacco farming was the principle commercial activity.  This was controlled by the Bermuda Company (London), who at the time, imposed stringent transport restrictions. When the Crown abolished the Bermuda Company in 1687, there was an explosion of activity by residents to build their own ships of various sizes, to independently ferry goods across the island and distant seas. One of the more common Bermudian vessels was a Shallop.  A small modestly constructed open boat, fitted with sails and oars, a shallow draft, and a “chine” planked hull. In building the frame and applying the planks, the image of the construction resembles that of a traditional Bermuda roof structure with the lapped slate.

One of the most profound changes to the islands economy was shipping versus farming.  Bermudians traveled far and wide exchange goods to the various island in the Caribbean and the struggling coastal settlements of the US and Canadian East Coast. Among the many commodities exchanged, Sugar and Rum were prominent. The sugar was part of a local rum punch used to celebrate commercial maritime successes. Given the propensity to grow riches in the rum trade, a common ceremony to bid good fortune, fair weather and safety was performed prior to the launching of a new ship. The ceremony, known as “wetting the hull”, was conducted on all shallops and other ocean-going vessels.

In 1710, only 30 of the approximate 560 homes on island were made of stone. All this changed in 1712 and 1714, with two successive hurricane events damaged beyond repair all structures that were not otherwise built of stone. With the skills of the shipwright and carpenters available, so came the creation of lapped slate roofs, resembling the hulls of the ships. And like the celebrations at the boat yards, each completed roof required a celebratory blessing.

Today the same spirit of health, adventure and good fortune for future endeavors still exist. Homeowners (or captains), together with the design and labor teams, gather to toast the excellence of the sturdy construction. The ceremony begins with a liberal splashing of the Goslings Black Seal Rum over the roof, followed by a hearty swallow from the neck of the bottle by the owners, designers, and contractors. What ensues is a celebratory cocktail party to bid success to the future ahead, and the promise to get the project finished!