Coins and Sailing Traditions


Sailors are known as a superstitious bunch, and coins have been used in luck charms for almost as long as they have existed. It’s no wonder that there are maritime traditions involving coins.


Coins are involved at the very beginning of shipbuilding, during the keel laying. The builders place a coin or two beneath the keelblock of the ship, as a symbol of good fortune. These coins are usually loose, and often removed after the ship has left the dry-dock, though sometimes they are welded to the keel.


Another coin ceremony takes place when the mast is secured, or “stepped.” In the past, coins were placed directly under the mast step itself; it’s likely this custom began with the Romans. In ancient Roman custom, the dead must pay Charon a coin to gain passage across the river Styx. Coins below a ship’s mast would ensure that the sailors could pay this underworldly ferryman in case the ship sank. Other theories posit that the tradition began not as preparation for a watery grave, but as an offering to the gods for good luck on the journey.


In 1962, Peter Marsden discovered the wreck of a 2nd century AD sailing vessel by the side of the river Thames. It is the earliest-known sailing vessel of British origin; a bronze coin of the Emperor Domition was found under the mast.






Mast stepping ceremony for the USS Dewey

This tradition continues today; in fact, the official US Navy blog has a post about it. Coins are now put in a corrosive-proof case and welded to the radar mast of a ship. Coins are used, as well as memorabilia, and exonumismatic items like challenge tokens. Captain William J. Hart, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, said, “I think it’s very important we commemorate the stepping of the mast because it is a linkage between crews past, the current crew and the crew of the future. As we’re stepping the mast and rebuilding the ship, the story and legacy of the ship being involved in almost every major conflict in the past 25 years is passed on. Now the current crew picks up that legacy and has to build the ship and start building the new reputation of Theodore Roosevelt.” The USS Theodore Roosevelt had a mast-stepping ceremony in 2011, for which Roosevelt’s great-grandson was present.(A coin ceremony for this ship is particularly fitting, given Roosevelt’s long-lasting impact on American coin design.)


For thousands of years, sailors have used coins to bring good luck on the uncertain seas. It’s a tradition that connects the past and the present, and sure to extend into the future as well.

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