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.

Navigating the Seas

What is a sextant?

It looks like something from a Jules Verne novel – but this tool is pure nonfiction.

Long before GPS and other electronic tools took over in navigation, ship captains had to measure their location differently.

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

That’s where the sextant comes in. It looks complicated to modern eyes, but navigators were experts at each technical part. How does a sextant work? At the most basic explanation, a sextant measures the altitude of the sun or other celestial bodies above the horizon. It uses two mirrors; you look through one mirror at the horizon, while the other mirror moves on an arm to where the sun reflects off of it. Then the angle is read on the scale. This information is used to find the boat’s position on a chart.


The sextant is still sometimes considered an excellent backup on a ship for navigation, since unlike most modern navigational tools, it doesn’t run on electricity. It’s also a very accurate tool.

The sextant in the pictures is from 1837. It’s in remarkable condition and is even in its original box.


The label (a very pretty label, if only they made them like that today!) says: “the Sextant No. 19595 named Henry Hughes & Son LTD. of 6” radius & reading to 10” has been examined & found satisfactory.”

This site has a fun project to build your own sextant!

How a Shipwreck Changed History, Part II: The Treasure

Discover how a fishing boat found the treasure of a lifetime…

Last week, we learned about the shipwreck that changed history, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and indirectly causing the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the United States in size.

But what happened to the ship and its contents – namely the 400,000 silver reales on board?

The famous scene from Treasure Island where the huge treasure trove is discovered.

The famous scene from Treasure Island when the treasure is discovered.

One lucky fisherman found out on the fateful day of August 2, 1993. Jerry Murphy was fishing on a boat ironically named “Mistake” when his trawler got caught in something on the floor of the ocean. At first, they thought it was rock or debris, but when they pulled the net up a shower of silver coins appeared instead.

Murphy had come upon a stash of hundreds of Mexican silver coins, all dated 1783.

Immediately realizing the potential he had hit upon, Murphy marked the spot with a plotter and went to make a few calls.

First he called up his uncle Jim, partial owner of “Mistake”, and told him the news. They could hardly believe their luck.

Then Jerry called a lawyer, and in three days, they gained legal rights to the shipwreck.

They also hired a researcher of maritime history who extensively researched the wreck.

If you’ve read Part I, you know the rest: the wreck was found to be that of El Cazador, the ship that sank and lost its hundreds of thousands of coins to the bottom of the sea.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803. (via Jerry “Woody” on Flickr)

The coins found in the shipwreck included Pieces of Eight, the coin famous for its inclusion in classic adventure novels. Also known as a Spanish 8 Reales silver coin, the 8 Reales was the first U.S. dollar used in commerce and trade. It was used as legal currency until 1857.

Today, pieces from the El Cazador are available for sale from The Franklin Mint, offering the chance to hold a piece of history in your hands.

What would you do if you found treasure at the bottom of the ocean?