The coin and the keel

Seafarers are a superstitious bunch, and the traditions and ceremonies thought to bring good luck to their vessels date back at least 5,000 years. In Babylonian times, oxen would be presented to the gods to win favour for a new ship. Later, Greek and Roman mariners began the tradition of placing coins in their craft to bring good fortune.

No cattle will be present when Honfleur is launched, but a version of that ancient 'coin ceremony' survives to this day and will be observed when her keel is laid on August 6. Different traditions and ceremonies mark the other stages of a new ship's construction and launch, and they vary between shipyards and shipbuilding nations. Here, we look at some of those that will mark Honfleur's entry into service.

Steel cutting

Since commercial ships began to be made predominantly from steel around 70 years ago, a 'steel-cutting' ceremony has been held to mark the moment that a new ship takes physical form. The ship's owners attend, along with the shipyard workers who will make her, and all the guests are presented with a piece of the steel with which she will be constructed. Honfleur's steel-cutting ceremony took place in Flensburg on March 12.

Steel cutting image

Keel laying

The moment when the keel is laid and a new ship starts to be built up around it is another key milestone. It had even greater significance when ships were made of wood as this was often the first time a ship took physical shape. Now this happens with the earlier steel-cutting ceremony, after which the shipyard spends several months building huge sections of hull which are then craned onto the slipway and welded together. But the moment that the first of those steel sections is laid onto the slipway from which the finished hull will be launched remains an important moment. It's marked by the first of the coin ceremonies, in which a box of coins is laid beneath the keel by the captain for good luck.

Hull launch

Once the ship's hull is complete and watertight, it is launched into the water and towed into a wet dock to have its superstructure craned and welded into place. Launches at the Flensburger Schiffbau, where Honfleur is being built, are a spectacular affair as the yard has the region's last remaining traditional slipway. Once complete, Honfleur's hull will be allowed to slip backwards into the fjord in which the shipyard lies. She'll travel at some speed and make quite a splash, but her naval architects have already calculated all the forces involved and it's a perfectly safe exercise. The owners, the shipyard workers and their families are traditionally invited to witness it. Some shipyards weld the coins into the keel at the earlier keel-laying ceremony, but the box containing Honfleur's coins will be removed and used again in the later 'mast-stepping' ceremony. Some yards have a 'madrina', or ship's godmother, bless the ship and sometimes break a bottle of champagne on her bow at this stage. Others fill a bottle with the water the hull is first 'floated out' into, and place it on the bridge where it remains for as long as she's in service.

Hull launch image


The moment at which a sailing ship's mast was first raised was another major milestone in her construction. It's less significant now, but it's still marked in Flensburg when the coins from the keel are placed beneath the ship's radio mast, the closest modern equivalent to a main mast. There are various explanations for this tradition, but the one favoured by Brittany Ferries' naval architect Brice Robinson is that in past times, a few gold coins under the base of the mast could be used as a deposit on a new one should it be broken in a storm in some far-flung land.

Official launch and naming and ceremony

We're all familiar with the final ceremony in a ship's construction, in which the ship's godmother breaks a bottle of champagne across the bow, blesses her and names her, before she sails away from the shipyard and into service with her owners. But perhaps less well-known is the tradition that the shipyard never refers to a ship by its name, even when it's well-known in advance, saving that honour for the owners. So although the name Honfleur was settled on long ago, to the yard she's simply '774' on all official paperwork, as the 774th ship to be built there.


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