January 26, 2012

Coins to bring you luck

WHEN I LOOK at the forest of masts in a marina I wonder how many of those masts have coins under them. The ritual of placing a coin under the mast to bring a ship luck goes back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks believed that when you died you had to cross the River Styx to get to Hades, which, in those days, was regarded simply as the Underworld, the home of the dead. It wasn't hell as we think about it now. But  you had to have a coin to pay the boatman to take you across the river.

Every boat I've owned (at least those larger than a sailing dinghy) has had a coin under the mast, or, in one case, a thin disk of gold.  It's not that I'm superstitious, it's just that I'm a sucker for ritual and tradition and . . . oh well, all right,  I guess I'll have to admit it, I'm superstitious.

When a large medieval ship was discovered preserved in mud near Guangzhou, in Fujien, China, archeologists found coins inserted into the scarf joints in her keel.  In fact, the Guangzhou ship was furnished with a whole set of coins that formed a representation of the moon and the stars of the Great Bear constellation.

Another medieval vessel, the Vejby Cog, a boat originally about 45 feet long, was discovered in 1976 at Vejby strand in Denmark. There were still ceramics on board and, more significantly, about 100 English gold coins dated 1351 to 1377. Three of these had been placed under the mast.

Modern navies have continued the tradition. One of the U.S. Navy's newest carriers, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, has her lucky coins placed under the huge island house that contains the bridge, controls rooms and pilot house.

Captain John W. Goodwin placed his gold naval-aviator wings there, along with a selection of coins. The ceremony was conducted on November 11, 2000, when giant cranes hoisted the 650-ton island house in place.

So if your mast doesn't yet have a coin under it, you might want to start thinking about it. You don't have to use rare or expensive coins. In fact, in the days of wooden ships, when even skilled artisans earned comparatively little, it was regarded as imprudent to use gold.

So choose a coin that means something to you, one that was minted in the year the boat was launched, perhaps, or one from the year when you were born.

Today's Thought
Against a lucky man, even a god has little power.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiae

Welcome to number 500
WE HAVE reached another little milestone together, you and I.  This is the 500th Mainly about Boats column.  You can read any one of them by clicking on the list of subjects shown at the bottom of this page.

Incidentally, although the official name of this column is Mainly about Boats, I have never emphasized it. Hardly even mentioned it, in fact, except in the little line that asks you to tune in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a new column. Perhaps it needs more prominence.

At the same time, the number of Followers has reached 100 for the first time, something that will have repercussions, I'm sure, for Col. Ivor Tungin-Cheaque, Chairman of Vigor's Silent Fan Club, the biggest fan club in the world.  I'm sure we will be hearing from him as soon as he can chew through his restraints once again.

In any case, I'd like to thank you all for your support, your comments and suggestions, and your occasional rude and uninformed criticism, which I don't print and don't take any notice of, so there.  As Kingsley Amis once said, "If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing."

"Sorry to hear that your wife ran away with your chauffeur."
"Ah, no problem. I was going to fire him anyway."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


bob said...

I've often considered this, and especially so when we had the mainmast out of Eolian.

But in the end, I relented.

Our mast and our mast step are both aluminum. I feared that placing a copper or silver coin under the mast or on the mast step would promote galvanic action.

Please tell me that my caution was unnecessary - I can still get a coin in there thru the hole that the wiring exits.

(Of course, if I had a wood mast, having copper coins under it would serve as a preservative rather than a corrosive...)

s/v Eolian

Anonymous said...

How does one go about getting counted as a follower? I've been reading your blog pretty regularly for a number of years, but I don't remember signing up for anything. I just have you as a bookmark in the list of regular ports of call. Maybe your readership is far larger than you suspect...

Unknown said...

Where do you put the coin on a trailer sailor? Between the support post and cabin ceiling?

John Vigor said...

Bob, Yes, a copper coin would eat a hole right through the aluminum if moisture were present. The answer is to insulate the coin. If you stick it on with a dab of epoxy or selant, that should do the trick. You could also encase it in a small plastic sleeve, or put insulating tape either side -- anything to prevent metal-to-metal contact.

On one boat I had, I stuck the coin to the lower part of the mast protruding through the cabin. It became a nice conversation piece when visitors came.

On a trailer-sailer whose mast is open at the bottom, you could glue the coin inside. If the bottom is closed, you could glue it to the bottom, to the mast step, or to a side support if you have a tabernacle. Alternatively, glue it to the inside mast support.

As for how you become a Follower, I honestly don't know. I just work here. I suspect you click on something hidden among the Followers at the bottom of the page. In any case, I've never encouraged it. It's a vexed question because it's tantamount to praise for the column, which automatically expels you from Vigor's Silent Fan Club, the biggest in the world. And that's very sad.

John V.

Micky-T said...

Last winter in Alabama when replacing the huge knees (for lack of a better word)that connect the upper poop deck to the lower bulwarks on the historically accurate copy of Columbus's favorite little ship, the "NINA" a Brazilian coin was found under the rotten lower end that attached to the bulwarks.
The "NINA" was built in Brazil 21 years ago without the use of any electric tools. Axes, adzes, saws and chisels with barefoot men put this caravel together not much different than when built in the 15th century.
Of course, I put the coin back proudly, in it's own counter bored hole sandwiched deep in black 5200.