Traditions in Shipbuilding – Keel Laying

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Keel Laying Ceremony. Image Courtesy: Meyerwerft

From building to launching and commissioning a ship, certain traditions are followed and these have a clear significance to people from different parts of the industry. From those building different parts of the ship to the owners, each person has a part to play and traditions are what commemorate the different steps in the fascinating process of building and launching a ship.

The first traditional shipbuilding ceremony is held when the production process starts. During this ceremony the purchaser and the vendor of the vessel ceremonially press the start button of the laser cutter.

After this initial step, the keel laying ceremony is held. The word “keel” comes from Old English “cēol”, Old Norse “kjóll”, = “ship” or “keel”. It has the distinction of being regarded by some scholars as the very first word in the English language recorded in writing, as far back as the 6th century. While “carina” is the Latin word for “keel” and is the origin of the term careen (to clean a keel and the hull in general).

Image Courtesy: Sail Far Live Free

The structural ship keel is the beam around which the hull of the ship is built. The keel is the beam that runs from the bow of the ship to the stern of the ship. You can see the beam when you board a ship. You can only see a part of the beam as most of it will be underwater. This makes it one of the most important parts of a ship. It can also be called as the spine of the ship.

Construction of the ship keel is not easy. It requires specialised skills and expertise to build a ship keel. Today ships are huge and are very complex and there are many types of ship keels that are used as per the ship. Full, Deep Fin, Bulb, Wing, Centerboard, Canting are types of Keels.

Image Courtesy: Teekay

The day it is placed in the ship is supposed to be a big day for the ship construction team. It is a significant step in the ship building process, and ship builders celebrate the keel laying, and the year is recorded. Keel laying is one of the four specially-celebrated events in the life of a ship; the others are launching, commissioning, and decommissioning.The keel laying even has its own special ritual – the “Coin Ceremony”. This sees the shipbuilders place one or two coins under the keel block of the new ship to bless the ship and as a symbol of good fortune.

Image Courtesy: Fincantieri

This tradition is a rooted in the times of sailing vessels, when a coin was put under the main-mast for good sailing luck. When the vessel is later launched the coins are placed in a showcase inside the vessels for passengers to see.

There are other variations of this celebration. For instance, a steel cylinder is made and the coins are placed inside it. The cylinder is then welded to the inside bottom of the vessel.

Image Courtesy: Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard

Keel-related traditions from the times of wooden ships are said to bring luck to the ship during construction and to the captain and crew during her later life. They include placing a newly minted coin under the keel and constructing the ship over it, having the youngest apprentice place the coin, and when the ship is finished, presenting the owners with the oak block on which the keel is laid.

Sea News Feature, January 2