Mast Stepping: A Mariner’s Tradition

The final section of the main mast of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) is installed at Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding. Theodore Roosevelt is undergoing a mid-life refueling complex overhaul. (U.S. Navy photo by John Whalen, Northrop Grumman/Released)

The final section of the main mast of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) is installed at Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding. Theodore Roosevelt is undergoing a mid-life refueling complex overhaul. (U.S. Navy photo by John Whalen, Northrop Grumman/Released)

This blog was compiled by LCDR Heidi Lenzini, Public Affairs Officer, Naval History and Heritage Command.

When a mast is about to be stepped – the process of raising a boat’s mast and setting it into a notch or step in the keel – all those on board the ship have the opportunity to contribute good luck coins or other memorabilia to be placed under it. The mast also may be stepped after a significant overhaul period when modifications have had to be made to the mast.

This maritime tradition is said to have its origins in the ancient Roman custom of placing coins in the mouths of men killed in battle. One theory is that, due to the dangers of early sea travel, the coins were placed under the mast so the crew would be able to cross to the afterlife if the ship were sunk. The coins were supposed to pay Charon, the mythical ferryman, for transporting the dead across the River Styx.

Many other sea-faring nations regarded the placement of coins beneath the mast as good luck for the ship. In recent decades, the coins have been placed in corrosion-proof receptacles at the base of the mast and the mast is stepped immediately afterwards. (Salty Words, Robert Hendrickson, Hearst Marine Books, 1984).

The “stepping” tradition applies to buildings as well. In 1987, a “stepping of the mast” ceremony was held for Naval Hospital San Diego, and coins were placed at the base of the hospital’s 71-foot flagpole, commemorating both the old and new hospitals. Current regulations do not allow coins to be used directly under the mast.

In 2005, a mast-stepping ceremony for USS John C. Stennis involved placing a plaque made from a piece of the old mast into the step.

For USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was fortunate to host the great-grandson of their namesake in 2011 for a mast stepping ceremony following an overhaul period, a plaque and time capsule were welded to the ship’s new mast. Seventy-one cents went into the time capsule, signifying the ship’s hull number, along with “challenge” coins from the ship’s Mustangs and other organizations throughout the ship. In addition to the coins, the capsule also contained historical markers like newspapers and a summary of current events. A boatswain’s pipe, a surface warfare pin and the newest warfare pin for information dominance also were placed in the time capsule. The ship’s partnership with local elementary schools was represented in the time capsule by including signed photographs and essays from 54 students, predicting what the future would be like in 25 years.

“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,” said Capt. William J. Hart, commanding officer, USS Theodore Roosevelt. “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 long-standing tradition of the stepping of the mast will continue January 26, 2013 when the mast of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is stepped during a ceremony conducted in Newport News, Va. You can watch the ceremony live at http://ow.ly/h7SBn.

Which naval tradition is most important to you and why?