A small bottle of whisky, recovered from the base of ex-HMAS Sydney (IV)’s mast during its scrapping in mid-June, has caused quite a stir in naval circles.
The Adelaide class frigate was towed to Western Australia in May to be recycled by Birdon Pty Ltd.
As news of Sydney’s fate reached former employees of Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle, a comment on social media alerted those scrapping her to the presence of a small bottle of whisky builders had placed in the base of one of the legs of her mast.
Director Guided Missile Frigate System Program Office, Captain Brad Smith said the team was made aware that Sydney’s mast may have been one of two in which Todd Pacific Shipyard supervisor Alex Otero and his team placed a bottle of whisky during construction.
“This was the first time in 35 years this was known about, and I think this is a fantastic way to finish the Sydney IV story,” Captain Smith said.
Guided Missile Frigate Disposals Manager Andrew Wise spoke with Mr Otero, who said that as a young shipfitter apprentice, the men who had worked in shipyards since before the Second World War had many stories to tell.
“One story was about placing coins under the main mast as they were being set, to bring good luck to the vessel,” Mr Otero said.
“During times of war, when a vessel was being built to take men into harm’s way, the shipbuilders would place a bottle along with the coins to help bribe the ferrymen to the after-world.
“Later, as a young supervisor responsible for the structural outfitting of guided missile frigates, my crews set masts on two of the 13 vessels built at Todd Pacific Shipyards.
“I recalled the old-timers’ stories of the coins and bottle, so I wanted my vessels to follow the old shipbuilding tradition,” he said.
Mr Otero said this was not a company policy, just a simple, covert operation on 10 April 1982.
“I recommended the practice to another supervisor, and even supplied the coin and bottle, only to find out years later they drank the bottle, which left suspicion as to what happened to the coin,” he said.
The silver dollar coin was of special significance, according to Director Strategic and Historical Studies at the Sea Power Centre - Australia, John Perryman.
“The custom of placing a coin at the step of masts in ships is an ancient one which appears to have its origins with the Roman custom of placing coins in the mouths of the dead to pay their passage money to the after-life,” Mr Perryman said.
“In like manner, if a ship with a coin under its mast met with disaster, this money ensured that the way of all on board was paid.
“Notwithstanding the many changes in the Navy today, these superstitions still hold true for some.”
Mr Perryman said it would seem the Navy’s men and women who served in Sydney (IV) were well looked after both materially and ethereally by the workers at the shipyard all those years ago.
“Not only did they build a stout ship, they took extra measures to ensure if tragedy befell the ship, her crew’s passage to the after-life would be all but guaranteed thanks to a silver dollar and a small bottle of McNaughton’s Canadian whisky,” he said.
The whisky and silver dollar were recovered by the Birdon Recycling team on 21 June and presented to Captain Smith.
Captain Smith said the artefacts had now travelled more than 960,000 nautical miles, including going around the world twice and on several operational deployments.
“They have been brought back to Garden Island, Sydney, where they will be placed in the Heritage Collection for display,” he said.
“We have also confirmed the other frigate mast in which Mr Otero and his team placed coins and whisky was not one built for the Royal Australian Navy.
“Plans are underway to return the gesture of international friendship and mutual concern for the welfare of fellow mariners, with a note of thanks from Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, and perhaps with a bottle of Australian rum.”
Mr Otero has been overwhelmed by the interest generated through the rediscovery.
He said the true reward was that the coin was recovered by the scrapping crew when the vessel had completed its duty, and not by ‘the ferryman’.
“Coincidentally, it’s been 35 years – 1982 to 2017 – for the 35th guided missile frigate,” Mr Otero said.