The tradition of mast stepping

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    Malcolm Lewis

      Please note that we will exploring this topic in a series on seamanship in Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Enjoy! Dr Sam Willis, Editor.

      In today’s Daily Telegraph, London 2 August 2011, is an article regarding the reopening of the Round Tower to visitors at Windsor Castle. In 1892 when the current flagpole was first raised on the tower a box containing one shilling and five pence in pennies and ha’pennies was buried at the base.
      This followed the nautical tradition of ‘mast stepping’ when coins were placed below the main mast of a ship. Thought to go back to Roman times, any sailor who died could use the money to pay Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology, who would row him across the River Styx into Hades, the world of the dead.
      Was this an international custom applied to all vessels and is it still observed today? Can I assume ships built for Nelson’s navy were ‘mast stepped’? Are there any records of how much money would have been placed at the bottom of the mast at that time?

      Lawrie Phillips

        Nine coins of the Realm were placed beneath the masts of the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert at Pembroke Dockyard, all dated 1899, the year of her launching. These were recovered when the ship was broken up and were displayed in a case on board HMY Britannia.

        Frank Scott

          Clearly no merchant ship or warship has been built with a traditional mast for many years, but in the sail-training world the custom still exists. Certainly in the UK both TS Royalist (1971) and STS Lord Nelson (1986)had coins placed under their masts. However, now that stepping the mast on deck is becoming more common (and rather too popular with our regulatory authorities) the custom is under threat even there.

          A.C. D

            When the mast of the pilot cutter ‘Cariad’ (formerly owned by the late Frank Carr) was lifted out at Exeter in 1970 there was a half-crown coin adhering to the mast step.

            Editor’s note:
            Cariad was launched at Pill, near Bristol, in 1904, and has recently been restored to full sailing ability. More about this lovely vessel can be read at their website:

            Timm W

              There is a much older [post-Roman] example [in northern Europe] for the tradition of placing coins underneath a mast.
              In 1976 a wreck was discovered near Vejby on the coast of North Zealand, Denmark. Dendrochronological analysis showed that the hull was built out of trees which were cut 1371/72 AD. These had grown in the Gdansk area of North Poland.1
              In the mast step there were a bracteate [a small-value coin stamped from one side, common in Denmark in its early Christian period],2 and a halbschoter [a medium-value coin], both minted by the Teutonic Order in Prussia. The bracteate most likely dates around 1365 AD, while the halbschoter was minted between 1360-80.
              As it is unlikely that Roman traditions were well known in the 14th century in the Eastern Baltic region, there must be other lines of tradition for this practice there.

              1. Bonde, Niels and Jensen, Jørgen Steen ‘The dating of a Hanseatic cog-find in Denmark: what coins and tree rings can reveal in maritime archaeology’, in Olaf Olsen, Jan Skamby Madsen and Flemming Rieck (eds.) Shipshape. Essays for Ole Crumlin-Pedersen on the occasion of his 60th anniversary, February 24th 1995
              (Roskilde, 1995) pp103-121.
              2. Oxford English Dictionary Online

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