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Christening a boat is serious business. Calling on a higher power to protect a craft and her crew has been done since ancient Babylonian times, said Anthony Binsfeld, president of J.F. Brennan Co.

And while the company’s newest vessel will navigate rivers rather than the high seas, it still needed the traditional naming rituals to ward off bad luck. The Titanic, Binsfeld noted, was never christened.

So Brennan employees and others gathered in Riverside Park on an unexpectedly chilly morning Saturday to make sure the new M/V Thomas Kennedy had a proper send-off.

The Rev. Robert Cook blessed the 70-foot vessel, sprinkling holy water throughout the decks and rooms. He invoked the image of Jesus calming both the storm and his panicking disciples on the Sea of Galilee.

And true to the tradition of vessels having a female sponsor, Kennedy’s wife, Trudy, did the honors of smashing the champagne bottle. She needed two swings to break the bottle — and chipped the black paint in the process, she later confessed.

The British added cannons to the christening ceremony, the French flowers, the Americans the bottle shattering, in some cases even aged whiskey, Binsfeld said.

He provided flowers and the cannon shot — from a toy-sized replica, a gift from his wife that fires shotgun shells — but balked at any fine spirits.  

“We’re not going to waste that here,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Brennan chief financial officer Tom Kennedy said he was “speechless” when he learned a year ago the newest addition to the company fleet would bear his name. Family members usually have been tapped in the past, he said.

“I must have done my job right,” Kennedy said. “It’s quite an honor.”

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After nearly 29 years with the company, Kennedy feels like family, said Mark Binsfeld, Brennan’s business development manager.

“Tom has been a really big part of the company, making us who we are,” Mark Binsfeld said.

The $3.1 million tow boat is designed to handle heavier barges with precision, specifically the $3.3 million, 1,200-ton barge the company added last year as well to carry a 300-ton construction crane. It is the third vessel Hope Shipyards of Dulac, La., has made for Brennan since 2009, joining the Roger Binsfeld and Lisa Marie, now based in Missouri.

The Thomas Kennedy can reach 1,800 horsepower, more than twice what the company’s older vessels can manage, and has an extra-high pilot house 29 feet above the water line so those at the controls can see over the crane or other equipment on the barge.

It has six rudders, two propellers and state-of-the-art electronics.

“This is the Cadillac,” said Jim O’Neill, who got to pilot the vessel before recently retiring.

Though based in La Crosse, Brennan has its fleet stationed in several states, so this offered a rare chance for a christening close to home, Mark Binsfeld said.

The MV Thomas Kennedy will head Monday with the crane barge for work on Lock and Dam 18 in Burlington, Iowa. It will be enlisted for projects on the Illinois and Ohio rivers as well, Mark Binsfeld said.

But Kennedy is confident that, unlike the other two such vessels in Brennan’s fleet, his namesake will regularly return to La Crosse.

“And I think every Tom Kennedy along the way will claim it,” he said.

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